A look at Nevada

Posted July 3, 2003 at 5:15pm

In Nevada, the political dynamics of the 2004 cycle hinge in large part on the thinking of one man: Rep. Jim Gibbons (R), who is expected to make a decision soon on whether to challenge Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D). [IMGCAP(1)]

While Nevada political observers and the Congressman himself have rated the chances of his entering the race at 50-50,

there are indications that Gibbons may be moving closer to a Senate bid.

“There’s a better than 50-50 chance of him running for U.S. Senate,” said a GOP Nevada operative close to Gibbons. “We’re becoming more and more convinced that the timing could possibly be right for the Senate race.”

In recent weeks, Gibbons has increased his presence in the state, with Chief of Staff Robert Uithoven moving back to the 2nd district. Over the next six to eight weeks, the Congressman, who has stepped up fundraising this year, has events planned for Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe.

“The decision is expected to be in late August,” Uithoven said.

The national GOP appears content to pin its hopes for defeating Reid on the four-term Representative.

“We’re focused on Gibbons right now,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen, declining to speculate on whom the party would turn to should Gibbons defer. A poll conducted earlier this year for the NRSC showed Gibbons taking 40 percent to Reid’s 48 percent in a potential head-to-head matchup.

“It’s Jim Gibbons or no one,” said one Democratic aide close to Reid.

If Gibbons was to forgo a Senate bid, both Secretary of State Dean Heller and state Treasurer Brian Krolicki are reportedly interested in Reid’s seat. Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lynette Boggs- McDonald, who lost a bid for Rep. Shelley Berkley’s (D) seat in 2002, continues to be mentioned as a possible candidate, though publicly she has rejected the idea in favor of a possible run for Nevada secretary of state in 2006. Conservative activist Richard Ziser, chairman of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, has expressed interest. And state Controller Kathy Augustine has also been floated as a long-shot candidate.

In 2000, the Silver State backed George W. Bush over Al Gore 50 percent to 46 percent. And despite the Bush administration’s unpopular recommendation that Nevada’s Yucca Mountain be used as a nuclear storage site, the GOP swept the statewide elections in 2002, with Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) crushing Democratic opponent Joe Neal. Republican Jon Porter picked up the new 3rd district seat, gained during reapportionment and drawn to be the most competitive in the state, by 19 points. The GOP maintained its majority in the state Senate and added seats in the state Assembly.

Still, there may be political repercussions from the state’s current budget crisis — which saw the Republican governor file a lawsuit in the Nevada Supreme Court against the state Legislature for failing to pass a more than $860 million tax package needed to fund schools and balance the budget. Many Nevada political observers believe both parties will walk away with some of the blame.

Gibbons’ predominantly rural 2nd district — a yawning district comprising around 96 percent of the state’s land area, including the capital Carson City, Reno and the “cow counties” of Humboldt, Elko and Nye, among others — is overwhelmingly Republican, making the GOP primary the race to watch if he runs for Senate.

“It’s a pretty long drive between Democratic households in some of these counties,” crowed Nevada Republican Party Executive Director Joe Brezny.

Should Gibbons throw his hat in the ring for Reid’s Senate seat, a trove of GOP contenders is waiting in the wings. Secretary of State Heller, state Treasurer Krolicki and state Sens. Randolph Townsend and Mike McGinness have all expressed some interest in the seat. Rumors continue to fly that Assemblywoman Sharron Angle as well as the Congressman’s wife, Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons, may have their eye on the seat. And if former Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who now lives in Nevada, runs, she “could be a sleeper” candidate, said the GOP Nevada operative close to Gibbons.

Meanwhile, there are whispers that Ty Cobb, the executive director of the influential business group Northern Nevada Network, harbors some interest in a bid for either a Nevada House or Senate seat, depending on Gibbons’ decision. Cobb, no relation to the baseball Hall of Famer of the same name, has a broad circle of Washington, D.C., contacts, having served as a member of former President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council.

Redistricting shored up the Las Vegas-based seat held by Berkley, shifting Republican-trending suburbs into the newly created 3rd. Berkley, who ran unopposed in the 2002 Democratic primary, easily bested Boggs-McDonald (R), taking 53.7 percent to 42.7 percent.

And while Berkley said through a spokesman that “she’s thrilled to be the Congresswoman from Las Vegas,” she is believed to be keeping the door open for a potential Senate run in 2006, when Sen. John Ensign (R) is up for a second term.

Despite being evenly split — 42 percent Republican to 42 percent Democratic — voters in the 3rd district overwhelming cast their ballot for Porter (R) over the ethically challenged Democratic candidate, former Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera, who was recently named in an FBI probe of the commission. Although the 3rd would have given Gore the edge in the 2000 presidential contest, growth in the suburban Las Vegas-based district, which includes Henderson and Spring Valley, has been favoring Republicans, and Porter is reportedly well-liked by the state’s powerful gaming industry.

“The clock is ticking,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger, referring to Democratic chances of making a competitive run for the seat.

Still, Assemblyman David Goldwater (D), an investment consultant, is seriously looking at the race, and state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, as well as Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy, have been floated as potential contenders. Former Las Vegas mayor and two-time gubernatorial candidate Jan Jones, now senior vice president of communications and government relations for Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., had been mentioned for the seat, but last week Jones’ name showed up on a list of hosts for a $1,000-per-person Porter fundraiser.

With the governor’s mansion up for grabs in 2006, a slew of candidates are already testing the waters to replace Guinn, who is term-limited.

On the Democratic side, state Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson and Titus have all expressed interest in the post. And, in what could make for an interesting race, former mob attorney-turned-Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has also been named as a possible candidate for higher office, such as governor or Senate in 2006.

Gibbons — should he sit out the Senate race — has not closed the door on a potential gubernatorial bid in 2006. And speculation that Ensign might make a run for that office has never entirely dimmed.

Given that all statewide constitutional offices are held by Republicans and that, all with the exception of Attorney General Brian Sandoval, are term-limited in 2006, many are also contemplating a run for governor. Those who have expressed interest in the contest include Heller, Krolicki and Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, said Mike Slanker, a consultant to both Ensign and Porter.

Sandoval — widely seen as a rising star in Nevada’s Republican circles — has also been mentioned as a top prospect. A former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, Sandoval has been listed by Nevada Republicans as a future gubernatorial or Senatorial candidate.

He’s “unquestionably a future governor or Senator of Nevada. It’s a question of when,” Slanker said.

As for the next crop of Silver State players, some political observers say the GOP has a leg up over the Democratic Party.

“The Republicans clearly have more potential candidates than the Democrats,” said Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston.

And even one Democratic strategist conceded, “There aren’t a whole lot of people who look like rising superstars, but sometimes it’s hard to see them until they’re there.”