Photo/Dennis Myers On primary election night at Washoe Democratic headquarters, U.S. House nominee Kristen Spees chatted with a party supporter while waiting for election returns to come in.

Former Nevada economic development director Robert Goodman is the Democratic nominee for governor and attorney Kristen Spees is the Democratic nominee for the northern U.S. House seat. Whether those nominations mean much is likely to be decided in the next few days. What is certain is that, in the north, at least, it is the weakest top-of-the-ticket Democrats have fielded in many years.

“I think they [Goodman and Spees] need to show some substantial signs of life right away, or it’s over,” said one Democratic leader.

“I don’t know that it’s that dire, but I presume they [Democratic Party leaders] are having one heck of a lot of conversations these days,” political scientist Fred Lokken said.

He said a lack of familiar names at the top of the ticket gives Democrats little reason to go to the polls.

“At a time when, demographically, they are in the ascendancy, there’s no spark, no interest,” he said.

In January, Democratic leader Harry Reid said that “obviously the [governor’s] race isn’t going to be determined only by money.” He turned out to be dead wrong. In spite of weaknesses in Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval record as governor, including the second highest unemployment rate in the nation, all major Democrats were scared out of the race by his campaign treasury, which is past the $3 million mark.

The failure to field a serious Democratic candidate means that unless things change, Sandoval will be free to use all that money to help other Republican candidates—particularly state legislative candidates. In 1976, when Nevada’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon was leading his GOP opponent by two to one, he passed his campaign money out to other Democratic candidates around the state. Legislative candidates received $50 each—$201.90 in 2013 dollars.

The signs aren’t good. Anyone interested in helping Goodman’s campaign who calls the phone number listed on both his campaign website and the Nevada secretary of state’s website as his contact number would get a recording—“This phone does not accept incoming calls,” which may be a first in political campaign outreach. And it turned out that at the time of his primary victory, he was on the other side of the world. In an email message, he wrote that he was traveling in Asia “on a trade and tourism private mission to seek to attract tourism, investment and international trade opportunities for Nevada, something I’ve been doing for years.” He also said he would present “my platform and my policies in due course.”

If, after the buildup the Sandoval administration has given it, the 6,500-job Tesla Motors plant goes to another state, it will be a substantial setback to Sandoval that Goodman, as a former state economic development director, would be well positioned to exploit—if he has the political know-how.

Democrats may have done a lot to empower the Republican governor. Lokken said of the primary election, “It does wonders for Sandoval.”

He said the GOP has been split between Paulists and other Republicans so seriously that it has undercut Sandoval as a party leader. The failure of the Democrats to run a strong candidate against the governor and Sandoval’s success in pushing through his own candidate for lieutenant governor strengthens him and his GOP faction, Lokken believes.

“I think Sandoval needs some of these kinds of boosts from the election to return the party to greater normalcy,” he said.

“Mitt Romney having to fund his own campaign structure” because the state party organization fell into Ron Paul hands, Lokken said, was an enormous setback for Sandoval.

“This is not the way you have a sitting governor treated,” Lokken said.

If Sandoval has in fact been fortified and uses his money to turn the legislature his way, Democrats may find the price of ignoring the governors race higher than they expected.

Homework

For Kristen Spees in her U.S. House race, winning in northern Nevada for a Democrat means winning in western Nevada. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has urged Democrats to reach out to rural areas, but one candidate who took his advice—2006 Democratic nominee for governor Dina Titus—regretted it.

“If I had it to do over again, I would attend the obligatory events in rural Nevada, like the parades and the cowboy poetry event, and spend the rest of my time in the urban areas,” Titus later said (“No sale,” RN&R, Aug. 28, 2008).

The small counties, particularly relatively populous Elko, are rock ribbed conservative. Indeed, there have been instances in which Democrats came in third, behind the far right Independent American Party. Democratic issues, particularly the environment, do not play well there. While Democratic registrations outnumber the IAP six to one in Elko County, there have been years when there were no Democrats running in most races and IAP candidates were actually elected. In 2010, the only Democrat on the ballot in Elko County was an Assembly candidate who came in third, behind the Republican winner and IAP nominee Janine Hansen.

Hansen, as a matter of fact, has a role in this year’s U.S. House race. She is the IAP candidate and in a competitive race the votes she drains away from Amodei could hurt. So far, though, there is not yet any indication that she will be a factor.

Like Goodman, Spees is not yet up to speed. Asked if she has identified issues in incumbent Mark Amodei’s record that she finds lacking, she said she has not.

“I’m looking into it,” she said. “I actually voted for Mark Amodei in the last election, but I feel like he hasn’t held up to all of his promises. You know, he’s done a lot of things that I do like, but I think it’s time for some change, time to get some fresh ideas, and get a younger person in there, a new generation.”

Amodei turned 56 two days after the primary election. Spees will turn 28 in October.

That kind of halfhearted attitude is reminiscent of Spees’ predecessor as the Democrat running in this House district. On winning the Democratic nomination exactly two years before Spees’ comments, Samuel Koepnick said, “Amodei makes it a bit tougher. As you say, he’s got the war chest. But in my perfectly honest opinion, he’s not a bad representative, either. He really doesn’t have any weak points to attack.” Koepnick lost in a landslide, trailing Amodei by 21 percentage points.

Since this U.S. House district was created in 1981, it has never elected a Democrat. In 2006 and 2008 Democrat and university regent Jill Derby broke her pick trying to win the same U.S. House seat. She mounted major campaigns and got substantive support from national groups without coming close to winning in either campaign, losing by 5.41 percent the first time and 10.38 the second. Party leaders say that groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which backed Derby with money and other resources, now consider the district unwinnable. While the district was redrawn in a court-imposed redistricting plan, the likelihood is that it just became more conservative, because the small counties constitute a larger percentage of the overall voting populace than in the previous configuration.

As Lokken said, Nevada’s demographics have been turning Democratic. One of Spees’ Democratic opponents zeroed in on the challenge for Democrats as he watched his own candidacy fail at county Democratic headquarters on election night. Washoe has gone Democratic in the last two presidential elections, Brian Dempsey said, “and we’re trying to figure why it’s going red for Congress and for Senate.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...