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Top 10 Nevada primary races to watch in 2016

Posted at 3:27 PM, Mar 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-23 20:27:12-04

Nevada candidate filing wrapped up on Friday, and voters will soon shape the makeup of the next Legislature when they go to the polls in June.

Though the primary tends to draw much lower turnout than the general election, voters will effectively decide many of the legislative races in June, especially in districts heavily slanted toward one party. Primary results will predict much about how successful Democrats will be trying to regain control of the Legislature after Republicans swept into power in both the Assembly and Senate in 2014.

There’s also a decent chance that some Republican officeholders could be knocked off by primary challengers upset that they supported raising or extending $1.4 billion in taxes, mostly to provide new K-12 education spending.

Anti-tax activists are running primaries against several Republican incumbents who voted for the tax deal, but will have to overcome establishment support and gobs of fundraising dollars from businesses that supported the taxes.

Here are ten primaries to watch in the two months leading up to the primary election.

SD 6 Republican Primary:

Candidates: Assemblyman Erv Nelson, Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman

If there’s one race that boils down the divide among Nevada Republicans, it’s this state Senate primary. After incumbent Sen. Mark Lipparelli declined to run, the Senate Republican caucus tapped freshman Assemblyman Erv Nelson to move into the Summerlin-area district and run with the caucus’s backing.

Nelson is arguably one of the most socially conservative members of the Assembly, sponsoring an unsuccessful measure that would have added religious freedom protections into state law that critics said would allow for legal discrimination against LGBT people.

Nevertheless, he notably reversed his previous anti-tax position and voted for $1.4 billion in new and extended taxes to help fund K-12 education programs.

That vote is a favorite sticking point for his primary opponent — fellow Assembly Republican Victoria Seaman, who voted against the tax increase. Seaman, opting not to run for re-election in her heavily Democratic district, has accused Nelson of carpetbagging, distributing “insanely false” campaign literature and being a pawn to the “establishment.

Nelson outraised Seaman by around $25,000 in 2015, with both candidates putting up impressive fundraising figures — Nelson with $113,972 and Seaman with $88,858.

The primary winner will take on Nicole Cannizzaro, a deputy Clark County District Attorney endorsed by the Senate Democratic caucus. Cannizzaro raised $101,013 in 2015 — a smaller sum than Nelson but without a primary race to soak up funds.

This race is arguably the best litmus test for how Republican primary voters will treat the legislators who took the risk of voting for a tax increase. It’s also one of a handful of districts in play that could upend the narrow 11-10 Republican majority in the state Senate.

SD 15 Republican Primary:

Candidates: Former Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert, business owner Eugene Hoover

Control of this Reno district is up for grabs with incumbent state Sen. Greg Brower taking a job in Washington D.C. Senate Republican leadership quickly tapped former Assemblywoman and Gov. Brian Sandoval’s former chief of staff Heidi Gansert to take Brower’s place, but she faces a primary challenge in conservative businessman Eugene Hoover.

Gansert leads by a huge margin in fundraising, but her non-committal answers on support for the tax increase may hurt her in a low-turnout primary.

Brower won a very close race over former Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie in 2012, but Republicans have upped their registration advantage in this district over the last four years. Democrats recruited Reno attorney Devon Reese to run for the seat, and he won’t face a primary.

AD 9 Republican Primary:

Candidates: Assemblyman David Gardner, Nevada RNC committeewoman Diana Orrock, Minddie Lloyd

Gardner faces a steep challenge for re-election in this Democratic-leaning district on the far west end of Las Vegas. The freshman Republican, who notably helped shepherd through a major bill to break up the Clark County School District, has a serious primary challenger in Nevada Republican National Committeewoman Diana Orrock.

Orrock outraised Gardner in 2015 by around $7,000 (including a $5,000 personal loan), but the incumbent should have no problems raking in more money between now and June 14. Lloyd, a community activist, could play spoiler to either candidate.

The winner of the primary will likely take on public defender Steve Yeager, who in turn outraised both Republicans in 2015.

Yeager, a well-known lobbyist, is endorsed by the Assembly Democratic caucus and ran a losing bid against Gardner in 2014, falling by around 450 votes in a low-turnout election.

AD 34 Democratic Primary:

Candidates: Zach Conine, Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod, Manny Garcia

This race is notable for being just one of a handful of competitive Democratic primary fights. Assembly Democratic leaders have endorsed Bilbray-Axelrod, sister of former Congressional hopeful Erin Bilbay, as their candidate in a district with a double-district Democratic registration advantage.

She faces a tough challenge in entrepreneur and casino manager Zach Conine, who significantly outraised her in 2015. Political newcomer Manny Garcia trails them both in fundraising but has some union support.

With incumbent Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman running for state Senate and no serious Republican challenger stepping up, the winner of this primary is almost certainly poised to represent the Summerlin-area district in 2017.

AD 35 Republican Primary:

Candidates: Assemblyman Brent Jones, Tiffany Jones, Thomas Blanchard

The power struggle in the Assembly Republican caucus may be most obvious in this district. Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson’s Growth and Opportunity PAC is supporting bakery owner Tiffany Jones against incumbent Brent Jones, who’s recruited candidates to run against fellow incumbent Republicans who voted for the tax increase.  

Tiffany Jones, a political newcomer, announced her candidacy after the 2015 contributions filing deadline but will likely see significant financial support from Anderson’s PAC.

Business owner Brent Jones reported raising a relatively paltry $2,000 in 2015, but has money to spend and is supporting several other candidates in primaries against Republicans who voted for the tax increase.

Also running is real estate agent Thomas Blanchard, who lost a close race for the district in 2012.

The primary winner will face off against well-funded Democratic attorney Justin Watkins, who doesn’t face a primary and was endorsed by the Assembly Democratic Caucus. The district itself has a slight Democratic registration advantage and is likely a target district for both parties in November.

AD 40 Republican Primary:

Candidates: Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill, Kiran Hill, Al Kramer, Sam England, Chris Forbush

Freshman incumbent O’Neill is facing four primary challengers in this Carson City-based district after the former law enforcement officer voted for the tax increase.

Kramer, a longtime former Carson City treasurer, is the only challenger with electoral experience, but several anti-tax Republicans including congressional hopeful Michele Fiore have backed political newcomer England.

The large primary field could actually benefit O’Neill in this Republican-titled district, as the mass of voters unhappy with the incumbent could split their vote between four other candidates. O’Neill will almost certainly lead in fundraising, collecting $53,449 in 2015, and is expected to highlight his record of supporting cost-of-living salary increases for the many state employees who live in the district.

AD 22 Republican Primary:

Candidates: Keith Pickard, Richard Bunce, Grant James Butak

With incumbent Assemblyman Lynn Stewart planning to retire, this Republican-leaning Henderson district is up for grabs between establishment-backed lawyer Keith Pickard and Richard Bunce, best known for previously working on Ron Paul’s Nevada campaign.

Bunce lost a primary challenge to Stewart in 2014 by around 670 votes, and has aligned himself with Assemblyman Brent Jones’ group of insurgent Republicans targeting establishment candidates. He significantly outraised Pickard by loaning his campaign $50,000.

But Pickard has the backing of establishment Republicans, and should be able to make up the difference in fundraising and more as the primary season rolls on. Butak, a political unknown, could sap votes from both candidates.

As Democrats haven’t endorsed a candidate in the race, the survivor of this primary battle should roll easily to a general election win in November.

AD 36 Republican Primary:

Candidates: Assemblyman James Oscarson, Rusty Stanberry, Tina Trenner

Like several other rural representatives, Oscarson made a politically risky move in voting for the tax increase last session. The Nye County Republican Party voted to “excommunicate” Oscarson and Gov. Brian Sandoval last year over the tax vote, and the two-term Assemblyman has attracted two primary challengers and Libertarian brothel owner Dennis Hof to run against him.

Oscarson pulled in close to $90,000 in 2015, which is a huge sum for a down-ballot Assembly race. His opponents didn’t report any contributions in 2015, but both Trenner and Stanberry have signed on to Jones’s anti-tax “Contract with Nevada,” which could pull in financial support down the road.

The eventual primary winner likely won’t see a serious Democratic opponent, but brothel owner and Libertarian candidate Dennis Hof could be a major roadblock for any candidate if he stays in the race. Hof seems to have his sights set on Oscarson, telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal “Anyone who voted for that tax should be fired.”

AD 6 Democratic Primary:

Candidates: William McCurdy II, Macon Jackson, Arrick “Kerm” Foster, Valencia Burch, Lacy Gibson

Longtime Democratic Assemblyman Harvey Munford is finally termed out of office, opening the door to a crowded primary in this heavily Democratic district. Assembly Democrats have endorsed McCurdy, a former community college student body president and union organizer, in one of just a handful of competitive Democratic primaries statewide.

But McCurdy raised a relatively small amount in 2015, and will need to fend off numerous primary challengers in order to win the seat. No other candidate filed contribution reports for 2015, but small business owner Burch, Jackson and Foster could be tough challengers and fracture the vote enough to make for a competitive race.

AD 21 Democratic Primary:

Candidates: Ozzie Fumo, Vinny Spotleson, Ben Nakhaima

Assembly Democrats list this district, currently held by freshman Republican Derek Armstrong, as a potential pickup opportunity in 2016 due to its modest Democratic registration advantage.

There are no caucus endorsements yet in what promises to be an interesting primary fight between longtime Las Vegas lawyer Ozzie Fumo and former Sen. Harry Reid staffer Vinny Spotleson.

Fumo reported raising an eye-popping $82,043 in 2015, dwarfing Spotleson’s $10,032 haul in the same timeframe. But Spotleson touts an endorsement from Reid and has quickly seized upon several hot-button local issues, like the rate changes for rooftop solar customers.

Nakhaima, a 21-year-old college student, made news for being one of the youngest candidates to file, but hasn’t raised any money.

The winner will take on a well-funded Armstrong, a rising Republican leader who chaired the Assembly Tax committee last session. He who faces his own primary challenge from 28-year-old Blaine Jones, the son of anti-tax Assemblyman Brent Jones.