By Jim Ellis
June 17, 2016 — As we examine the 2016 political landscape, it appears that Nevada, the small four-congressional district western state of 2.8 million people, will play a defining role in electing a president, determining which party controls the United States Senate, and whether or half of its House seats swing.
The developing Senate contest between Rep. Joe Heck (R-Henderson) and former two-term Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) became official in Tuesday’s statewide primary. Masto and Heck each recorded landslide victories in their respective nomination contests and have now begun the arduous general election campaign. The state also hosts two nationally significant House races.
In the 3rd Congressional District, businessman and frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian upset state Senate Majority Leader Mike Roberson to win the Republican nomination from the politically marginal district that encompasses south Las Vegas and the succeeding territory all the way to the Arizona and California borders. Tarkanian will now face software developer Jacky Rosen (D) in the general election. Until Rep. Heck made his district politically secure, the 3rd delivered victory percentages of only 47.4, 48.1, and 50.4 from 2008 through 2012.
In the central-state 4th District that also contains a portion of Clark County, freshman Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Mesquite) scored one of the biggest upsets of 2014 with a 48.5 – 45.8 percent stunning victory over then-Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Las Vegas). On Tuesday, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen (D), armed with support from outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) and state Democratic Party and labor union leaders, overcame both poor polling numbers and two competitive intra-party opponents to claim the congressional district nomination. Because this seat will vote Democratic in presidential election years (Obama ’12: 54.4 percent, for example), the 4th will be a tough hold for Rep. Hardy and the Republicans.
The Silver State with its six electoral votes is among the tightest of voting places in presidential years. Over the past four elections, the winning presidential candidate has scored 49.5 percent, 50.5 percent, 55.1 percent, and 52.4 percent from 2000 through 2012 — anything but landslide proportions. Though the state voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections, Nevada voters handed Republicans a statewide top-to-bottom sweep in the 2014 midterm campaign.
Under this backdrop we now look at how the presidential map may divide in 2016. Assuming that Donald Trump carries all 23 states that have gone Republican in virtually every election since the turn of the century, a combination of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Nevada would produce a GOP presidential victory, for example. Replacing Colorado with Iowa would force a tie in the Electoral College, thus sending the election to the House of Representatives for the first time since John Quincy Adams became president after the 1824 election.
But it is the Senate race where Nevada could become the majority harbinger this year. Harry Reid’s open seat is the only Democratic defensive state that is truly in play. Colorado should be, but the local Republicans have so bungled their opportunity that Sen. Michael Bennet (D) should now have little trouble securing re-election.
Therefore, if Rep. Heck and the Republicans convert the Reid Senate seat, a scenario that is entirely plausible, the GOP would likely re-secure their national majority. Considering the number of seats in play, it would be very difficult for the Senate Democrats to lose Nevada and still defeat enough Republicans to re-gain chamber control.
Come Nov. 8, when the big eastern states have already reported their votes, it may well be Nevada in the wee hours of the morning that decides which party wins both the presidency and the US Senate.