The Nevada Senate's Alluring Simplicity

In the spirit of Valentine's Day (and with apologies to my wife), I must confess my love for the Nevada Senate. I don't ...
by | February 16, 2010

In the spirit of Valentine's Day (and with apologies to my wife), I must confess my love for the Nevada Senate.

I don't love the Nevada Senate for the great statesmen that walk its halls (although I imagine it's had some) or the brilliant legislation that it produces (although doubtlessly it produces some). No, what I love is the simplicity of its elections.

The Nevada Senate only has 21 members. These 21 members are elected on two different cycles. In 2008, the state had 10 Senate elections. This year, it has 11. When it comes to easy-to-follow campaigns for control of a legislative chamber, the Nevada Senate sets the gold standard, along with the Alaska Senate (20 members elected on two cycles) and the Delaware Senate (21 members elected on two cycles).

Going into the 2008 elections, Republicans had an 11-10 edge in the Senate. Going into election day, everybody knew that two Republican-held seats were competitive and that none of the Democratic-held seats were competitive. Democrats won both of those races and established a 12-9 edge.

With this small of a playing field, not a whole lot of thought has to go into the which races to target. Democrats hold five of the eleven seats up this year. Republicans need to pick up two out of five and not lose any seats to take back control.

That's quite a challenge, especially because Shirley Breeden and Allison Copening -- the two Democrats who knocked off Republican incumbents in 2008 -- aren't on the ballot. More than eight months before the election, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was able to tell us where Republicans are looking for those two seats.

The obvious Democratic vulnerability is Joyce Woodhouse in Clark County's District 5. Both parties cite the seat as a Republican opportunity.

It's easy to see why. District 5 is one of two two-member Senate districts in Nevada (the state has 19 districts for its 21 members). It's the same seat that Breeden beat Republican Sen. Joe Heck by less than 800 votes in 2008. Woodhouse won 48%-45% in 2006. The Henderson-based district only has slightly more Democrats than Republicans.

The challenge for the G.O.P. is finding a second seat out of the five held by Democrats to seriously contest. The two cited in the Review-Journal article are open seats: Clark County's District 7 ("a long shot," says Brent Husson, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party) and Washoe County's District 1 ( "not out of the realm of possibility," Husson says). Both seats have twice as many Democrats as Republicans.

Democrats also are looking at a few pickup opportunities. Republican-held seats in Clark County's districts 8, 9 and 12 all have slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans. Washoe County's District 2 also has been competitive in the past.

But, Democrats don't have to win any of those seats to keep their majority. They just have to limit their losses to Woodhouse's seat. The tiny playing field means that it will take a real Republican wave for the Democrats to lose the Nevada Senate.

The great thing about the Nevada Senate is that we'll probably have a good idea whether Republicans have a chance weeks before the November election. Right now, the parties are talking about 7 out of the 11 seats up being in play. That remarkable rate of competitiveness is partially due to term limits creating a lot of open-seat races, but it's also likely due to some of wishful thinking from each party at this early date. The playing field almost certainly will shrink.

By the fall, Jon Ralston or some other informed Nevada political observer will be able to tell us exactly which one or two Nevada Senate races actually are competitive. Who knows, maybe there will even be three or four of them this year.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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