For the last 12 years, Nevada has had but three Representatives in the U.S. House: Two from the southern Clark County cities where 70 percent of Nevada lives and works, and another representing everybody else — all of rural Nevada from Elko in the far northwest to Pahrump on the state's Western border with California.
Then came the 2010 census, and the revelation that Nevada's population had increased enough that it deserved another voice in the House. So a new district was drawn, stretching across the state's uncertain middle, carving out the rural counties such as Nye and White Pine as well as part of urban Clark County. The fight to claim that district in 2012 launched one of the nastier electoral battles of the season.
Few real surprises came out of Nevada's electorate on November 6. Democrats retained control of the state's Assembly along with their one-seat majority in the state Senate. Republican Rep. Mark Amodei retained his hold over the newly drawn rural second district in the northern part of the state. Democratic Rep. Dina Titus won the solidly liberal first district, and Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, retained his seat in the suburban second district, which he’d won over Titus in 2010. Sen. Dean Heller narrowly edged out Rep. Shelley Berkley to win the Senate contest. The state's 6 electoral votes went for Obama.
All of that was predicted by polls and pundits. Some margins of victory were slimmer than expected; others, including Obama's, were larger. Only in the brand-new fourth Congressional district did the utterly unexpected happen: Steven Horsford, formerly the majority leader in the state Senate, beat out businessman Danny Tarkanian, the son of the famous University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, in what local newspapers described as a "rout." Horsford also made history: He’s the first African-American the state has sent to Congress.
As late as October 28, polls had shown "Tark," as locals call him, with a lead of three to five points over Horsford. In early October, Democratic political observers in the state were horrified to learn that Tarkanian not only had an edge with Latino voters but had also secured the support of at least one prominent black Democrat, former NFL star and local NAACP chapter president Frank Hawkins. "(Horsford) has forgotten where he came from," Hawkins told the Las Vegas Review Journal. (So much for Tarkanian’s supposedly game-changing racial gaffes.)
Horsford, despite his tenure in the state Senate, also had a name-recognition problem, and little money to combat it. Tarkanian had local fame and millions from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS political-action committee on his side. The money was used in television spots pounding Horsford on his record in the state Senate, potential ethics problems and, most of all, his willingness to raise taxes.
Taxes, however, are less of a sticking point in revenue-starved Nevada than they might be other places in the West (see "As goes Nevada, so goes the nation?" HCN, 10/29/12). Tarkanian had problems, too — most glaringly, he appears to owe $17 million to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation over a land deal gone bad. He’s also never held elected office, and in fact has lost several key contests, including one to Sharron Angle in the 2010 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. And by November, Horsford had regained the advantage among Latinos, with as many as 52 percent backing him.
But probably nothing doomed Tark more than the energetic get-out-the-vote machine that is the Nevada Democratic Party, an organization sharpened by formidable union organizing and the campaign skills of Sen. Harry Reid — who many believe ripped the 2010 election from Angle’s grasp simply by getting more liberal bodies to the polls. The effort mirrored and even surpassed the dozens of others like it in other states, where Democrats, including Obama, outperformed the forecasts. As Democrats now hold a voter registration advantage of 25,000 in the new district of 262,000, future Republican contenders may have a hard time wresting the seat away.
Nevada’s poverty and changing demographics will likely continue to move the formerly Red state into the Blue column. But Democrats shouldn’t get too excited, warns Las Vegas Sun political reporter Anjeanette Damon. “We’re still a battleground state,” she wrote. “(P)olitical operatives on both sides of the aisle” have assured her that Nevada can still swing, especially if Republicans get their act together to turn out the vote.
Of course, those pols “may have a vested interest” in that outcome, Damon reports. The two presidential campaigns invested $54 million on ads in the state this election season. Plenty of Nevadans might understandably hope that the state remains worth that kind of money.
Judith Lewis Mernit is a High Country News contributing editor.