How to See Nevada’s Politics

By Nancy McFarland

Given huge growth of population, Nevada has shifted from being a red state to not quite yet really progressive.  This piece is a very clear account of where Nevada politics is in the upcoming election:  tilting progressive.

To understand the nature of Nevada’s shifting political winds, it’s helpful to understand a little of the state’s geography and population.  

At 110,000 square miles, Nevada is the 7th largest state in the country.  It‘s one of the fastest growing population-wise, with the majority of growth in Clark County in the south and Washoe County in the north.  On an interesting note, in spite of those total square miles, available land for the rapidly expanding population in southern Nevada has nearly been depleted because 85% of all land in Nevada is federally owned.  An environmental study (water usage is a crucial element) and a request to Congress is being prepared to transfer 40,000 acres south and southeast of Las Vegas from federal ownership to Clark County for development.  Approval is expected to help ease the housing shortage and keep prices affordable. (Nevada just surpassed Washington State as having the fastest growing home prices in 2018.)  The land acquisition and subsequent development will help support the anticipated wave of Southern Californians once they file their 2018 tax returns. That likely liberal-leaning wave will have an important impact on Nevada’s future political landscape.

Nevada’s history is that of a small-town rural western mining state, and relatively libertarian leaning, with only a more recent shift to conservatism in the rural areas, which comprise the vast majority of the state’s geographical territory. Of 16 counties in Nevada, 14 are rural, each with populations of 50,000 or far less, and combined have roughly 330,000 residents, representing 12% of the state’s population. Those areas are mostly white, mostly native to Nevada, very conservative, and very supportive of the NRA.  Many of those counties and their towns are supported by mining operations. (The “silver state” is currently one of the world’s largest sources of gold, and mines roughly 78% of all the gold in the U.S.)

As the rural population has declined or failed to grow, the urban/suburban population of the other 2 counties has exploded. In 1960, Nevada’s total population of 285,000 was ranked 50th in the U.S.  Since then, the population has grown to 3.06 million, now ranking 32nd. Of that 3 million, 2.2 million live in Clark County and about 470,000 in Washoe County. In other words, 88% of residents live in the urban/suburban areas of Las Vegas/Henderson/North Las Vegas in the south, and Reno/Sparks in the north. Those are the only 5 cities in Nevada that have populations of 100,000 or more.

The overwhelming majority of the population gain in the past 40 years is due to net migration from other countries and states, primarily California.  In 2016, of the 15 states that had the highest number of “migrants” to Nevada, the number of Californians equaled the other 14 combined. That number is expected to stay on trend or grow, as lack of affordable housing, high taxes, and the cap on state/property tax deductions may force Californians to look for a more economical alternative. Similar climate, without the fires and mudslides, substantially lower housing costs and no state income tax, plus Clark County’s proximity to LA and Washoe County’s to the Bay Area, combined with a rapidly growing and more diversified economy, make Nevada an attractive option. Along with an increase in Hispanic and Asian populations, the influx of Californians is the primary demographic that has driven Nevada’s shift in politics from red to blue.

While many consider Nevada to have already become a blue state in recent elections, in reality, it’s still purple. The current Senate race is polling at 50-50, as is the gubernatorial race. In spite of the significant urban/suburban majority, which would normally lean more liberal, about 20-25% of that population is made up of senior citizens and veterans, both groups that lean conservative, and both groups that turn out in high numbers to vote.

The good news is that Democrats have a roughly 70,000 registration edge over Republicans. But, 40% of voters are registered as Independents, and how that group will lean, or if they’ll even vote, has not yet been explored in polling.

It’s expected that Democrats will retain the majority in both houses of the State Legislature, and it’s reasonable to believe the Legislature, which is currently 40% female, may become a female majority after the 2018 election!

While nothing is guaranteed, it’s also expected voters will choose to maintain U.S. House representation with 3 Democrats and 1 Republican. One of the U.S. Senators, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, is not up for reelection until 2022.

Nevada is purple due to the current all-Republican state administration. With the upcoming election, there is a possibility of electing a Republican governor, but with Democrats winning the Lt. Governor, AG, Secretary of State, Controller and Treasurer positions. (They are all elected positions, not appointments.) Split-governments are clearly not the best for making progress, but it would provide a much-needed restraint on ultra right-winger Adam Laxalt, should he be elected to the governorship.

While most of the nation’s eyes are on the Senate contest between incumbent Republican Dean Heller and freshman Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, it is the governor’s race that has the attention of Nevadans, and ultimately will impact Californians more specifically for the aforementioned reasons even more than the Senate race.

Democrat Steve Sisolak does not fit the progressive mold, but is left-leaning on social issues. He was bruised in the primary over his pro-developer stance, and how he acquired his personal wealth was/is a subject of some scrutiny. He raised two daughters as a single dad, and is using that to support his pro-female profile. He has the still-powerful Harry Reid machine, and a well-organized and active on the ground Nevada Democratic party, supporting his bid. Sisiolak, a current Clark County Commissioner, is pro-development, pro-gun control, pro-women’s rights, pro-union, pro-marijuana industry, and is mostly on the right side of Nevada’s top 3 issues: healthcare, education and immigration. He’s supportive of DACA and Planned Parenthood, but doesn’t have strong Veteran and only so-so union support. He’s either loved or hated for being primarily responsible for bringing the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. There is bitter dispute statewide over the $750 million in public funds being spent on the stadium. To make northern Nevadans happier (?) about it, Sisolak is prodding the Raiders to build their practice facility in the Reno area.

Republican Adam Laxalt, currently State AG, and grandson of former Governor Paul Laxalt (very close friend and advisor to Ronald Regan) is an NRA-backed, Sheldon Adelson-backed, Koch brothers-backed, candidate—in other words, big money stands to buy his election. To say the least, he’s extremely right-wing and his only appearances are at closed-Republican events and fundraisers. He’s been under ethics investigation for some shady decisions in support of Adelson’s casino holdings, as well as his odd decision to be the only one to vote against pardoning a man proven to be wrongfully convicted of murder. He isn’t particularly well liked or well qualified, but in these divided times, he has a lot of support simply because he’s the anti-immigrant, anti-ACA, anti-liberal, pro 2nd Amendment candidate. Most telling of all, outgoing popular moderate Republican Governor Brian Sandoval will not endorse Laxalt, saying he can’t support someone who would undo the last 7 years of progress.