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Registering some predictions on the midterms

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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This year, Election Day will happen during a simultaneous Blood Moon and statewide atmospheric river event. With portents like these, you might be wondering to yourself just how the upcoming election will turn out.

The answer, of course, is nobody knows ­— well, nobody except some brave souls in Pahrump who counted ballots out loud in front of hastily deputized Republican party officials before the secretary of state’s office and the state Supreme Court told them to stop. Those volunteers each know how the dozen or so ballots they each successfully counted were filled out — which, at the risk of being unnecessarily fair and charitable, is more than anyone else knows about the contents of the actual ballots cast thus far.

Yes, that’s right — a handful of bored, gun-toting retirees in Pahrump received more concrete evidence, and consequently know more about the actual results of the election in our state, than this very publication’s Chief Early Voting Blog Officer. Somebody get one of those volunteers an interview on national television!

Snark aside, the best any of us can do is engage in a bit of educated guesswork. To that end, this column is meant to follow in the example of Matthew Yglesias’ pre-registration of the midterm elections. Anybody can have opinions, myself included. The only way to prove if they map to any layer of reality, however, is to put them to the test.

So, in the spirit of helping us both learn whether I know what I’m talking about or whether I’m full of male bovine excrement, let’s begin.

What we know

Historically, parties lose support after they’re elected. Since Democrats currently hold the White House, both houses of Congress, and all but one statewide elected office in Nevada, we could safely expect support for Democrats to decrease this year without consulting a single piece of polling data. If we crack open a few polls, we also know that President Biden’s favorability is currently underwater (though less so than they were in July) and Gov. Sisolak’s favorability is — at best — breaking even.

Consequently, even before The Nevada Independent’s CEO personally counted the partisan party affiliations of every early and mail voter in the state (our editor-in-chief will let him sleep eventually, I’m sure), all signs pointed towards Democrats polling worse this year than they did in 2018 — the most recent non-presidential and pre-pandemic election. The only question, then, was how much worse.

Now that we have some early voting numbers to examine (seriously, thank you, Jon!), we have a clearer picture. So far, Republicans are about 25,000 voters (not votes — the distinction is important) ahead of where they were going into Election Day in 2018. That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to flip the Senate race — Rosen defeated Heller by nearly 50,000 votes. It also wouldn’t, by itself, be enough to flip the race for governor — Sisolak defeated Laxalt by nearly 40,000 votes. All else being equal, then, it would not be unreasonable to expect Democrats across the state to win reelection, albeit with thinner margins than they won in 2018.

All else, however, is not equal. 

In 2018, fewer than 22 percent of active registered voters in Nevada were nonpartisan. Now, however, almost 30 percent of active registered voters are nonpartisan. There are, in fact, more nonpartisan voters than Republican voters in Nevada today.

That, at first glance, might sound like good news to Democrats — until we compare their current number of registered voters against 2018 as well:

Democrats

2018: 598,174

2022: 605,540

Difference: +7,366

Republicans

2018: 523,251

2022: 553,200

Difference: +29,949

Nonpartisan

2018: 342,055

2022: 553,830

Difference: +211,775

Even the Independent American Party — Nevada’s third-largest political party by voter registration — gained more registered voters (+12,200) between 2018 and 2022 than the Democratic Party. The only political party in Nevada to gain fewer registered voters in that time period, in fact, was the Libertarian Party, which only gained 742 voters. Even “Other,” a grab bag category that represents the sum of voter registrations of minor political parties that don’t have ballot access in Nevada and consequently can’t run candidates in this state without putting together a blindingly expensive statewide petition drive, gained 31,020 voters.

The popularity of registering as a Democrat, then, is not increasing. Percentage-wise, it’s plummeting faster than any other party in the state. Does this mean the popularity of voting for Democrats is in decline as well?

Well, yes. I would assume so.

While we’re adding insult to injury, Republicans are virtually tied with Democrats (by ballot count) after early voting — and there’s a sizable minority of Republicans who have talked themselves into the position that their vote will only count if they show up on Election Day with a blue pen in hand (long story, don’t ask). That minority is likely to be larger than the number of procrastinating Democrats who wake up on the morning of November 8 and realize they better hurry if they’re going to get their vote counted.

Having said all of that, candidates matter. We do not, after all, live in a universe in which Roy Moore is an incumbent senator from Alabama. Instead, we live in a world where Alabama, a state Trump won by a nearly 30 percent margin, recently elected a Democrat to represent them in the Senate. No, the senatorial career of Doug Jones was not long-lived — he lost his campaign for reelection by a 20 percent margin to a man who recently told a crowd of Nevadans that Democrats support reparations for the descendants of enslaved people because “they’re pro-crime” — but it still happened. Even in Alabama, there’s a bar under which even the largest majorities of partisan voters won’t allow candidates to sink under.

Nevada is not Alabama. The line for Republicans (and Democrats!) is considerably higher.

The reason Doug Jones won isn’t because hundreds of thousands of Alabama Republicans suddenly decided to vote for a Democrat. Instead, they decided they’d rather stay home than vote for a lecherous suspended judge with a penchant for ephebophilia. Democrats in Nevada, however, don’t need hundreds of thousands of Republicans to stay home or throw a protest vote at “None of the Above” to win — the margin of victory for either party will be measured in the low tens of thousands. 

That’s important because there are some truly execrable Republicans running for statewide office in this election. If only a Winnemucca’s worth (or two) of Republicans decide they’d rather chew glass than vote for, say, Adam Laxalt or Michele Fiore, they’re toast.

***

With all of that behind us, let’s make some predictions.

Cortez Masto vs. Laxalt

A few years ago, a candidate with controversial family connections to a nationally prominent politician who last served in Washington, D.C. decades ago decided to run for office. His assumed family connections made his party’s nomination seem like a foregone conclusion — and yet, a primary challenger came out of nowhere and pushed him much closer to the wire than anyone expected. That challenger was able to build a surprisingly strong base of support because the candidate was widely perceived as having an unpleasant personality, an unearned sense of entitlement, and a desire to say and do absolutely anything at all to get elected.

Needless to say, if people within the candidate’s party felt that way about this candidate, opinions outside the party weren’t better — which might help explain why, with the benefit of hindsight, the candidate lost one of the most improbable elections of all time.

No, Republicans, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton — I’m talking about Adam Laxalt, whose odds of victory are considerably lower than Clinton’s ever were.

Sam Brown, to be clear, didn’t get as close to defeating Laxalt as Sanders got to defeating Clinton — Brown ultimately lost by 20 percent when all was said and done. Even so, he still nearly pulled ahead of Laxalt in one county, falling less than 2 percent short.

That county? Douglas — home to Laxalt’s perennial Basque Fry. Familiarity, it seems, brings contempt — just ask Laxalt’s family.

By contrast, a select group of rural Nevadans have gone out of their way to visibly and publicly support Cortez Masto. No, a majority of rural Nevadans aren’t going to suddenly vote for a Democratic senator just because their otherwise Republican mayor or county commissioner openly supports her. However, she doesn’t need a majority of rural Nevadans to change their minds — she just needs to convince a few thousand of them to not vote for Adam Laxalt.

Considering how many of them voted against Laxalt in the primary despite his vocal and high-profile support for Trump’s election fraud charges — support which was clearly and obviously designed to encourage Trump to endorse his forthcoming senatorial run — it’s probably not going to take much convincing.

That’s why I think Sen. Cortez Masto will win reelection.

Sisolak vs. Lombardo

Former governor Brian Sandoval couldn’t help but make friends. Despite earning the ire of labor unions by signing a bill that abolished prevailing wage requirements for education-related construction and despite passing the largest tax hike in state history, he remained unflappably popular. If he ran for governor in 2018 — if he wasn’t term limited out — he probably would have won in a landslide.

Gov. Steve Sisolak is no Brian Sandoval.

Unlike Sandoval, who had absolutely no problem extending two middle fingers to the Republican base while beaming that sunny smile of his, Sisolak has actually tried to make his base and supporters happy. Collective bargaining for state employees? Done*! Higher taxes for teacher pay? Done*!

So why, asks Steve Sebelius, is his base so ungrateful? And why did I put asterisks up there?

Well, Sisolak did sign a bill authorizing state employees to engage in collective bargaining — but the bill also included a clause allowing the governor to unilaterally reject the conclusions of the negotiations if they want. As for teacher pay, Sisolak tried to address it twice — first with a measure that promised to increase it by 3 percent in 2019, followed by a mining tax increase in 2021. Unfortunately, that 3 percent increase didn’t quite happen as planned — as soon as the bill was passed, Clark County School District leadership surprised everyone, including Sisolak, by announcing the funds allocated in the bill weren’t sufficient to give teachers the promised raise and they’d have to eliminate some dean positions instead. As for the mining tax raise, it’ll collect far less than education advocates want — and nearly a tenth as much as would have been collected if the ballot measures withdrawn by the Clark County Education Association were approved by voters instead.

The problem for Democrats, then, is Sisolak gives them what they want, but only 10 percent of it and always grudgingly, or at least seemingly so. He will, if given a Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature, do no harm — which is not the most compelling sales pitch when he’s been given as close as Nevada gives anyone to a blank check.

Annoying the base is, to be clear, not necessarily a problem. Sandoval made a career of it during the Tea Party years, after all, and it certainly didn’t hurt him any. 

Unfortunately, Sisolak also had the misfortune to serve through the pandemic, along with all of its after-effects — many of which are neither unique to Nevada nor his responsibility. Inflation, for example, is higher in the United States than it is in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or Canada. There’s nothing anyone in Carson City can do about that unless secretaries of the United States Treasury start making frequent trips to our casinos.

That, however, doesn’t change the fact that Sisolak was, indeed, governor through all of it — through the pandemic, the closing of nonessential businesses, the spike in unemployment, the school closures, the irksome mask requirements, the eviction moratorium, the ever-changing health guidelines, plus so much more — and many Nevadans are ready to move on. 

If it helps him feel any better, Winston Churchill remained prime minister of Great Britain just long enough for the outcome of World War II to be a foregone conclusion — but not long enough to serve in that capacity during the Nazi surrender preceding V-E Day.

Will Lombardo be a better governor than Sisolak? Perhaps, perhaps not. As Hugh Jackson recently pointed out, it’s anyone’s guess if Lombardo even wants the job, much less what he’ll do with it if he wins it. On the other hand, Lombardo is a moderately popular sheriff of the state’s most populous county facing a governor many Nevadans, including many of his political allies, are tired of hearing from or thinking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’ll be close — but I think Joe Lombardo will be our next governor.

Cano Burkhead vs. Anthony

It’s not entirely unheard of for Nevadans to elect lieutenant governors from the opposing party of the governor they elect, but it is moderately unusual. The last time that happened was, well, the last time a Democrat was elected governor — Democratic governor Bob Miller had to work with the knowledge that first Sue Wagner, then Lonnie Hammargren, both Republicans, would assume his powers if anything ever happened to him.

That was, however, more than 20 years ago.

It’s possible that Lt. Gov. Cano Burkhead might poll a little higher, when all is said and done, than the governor who appointed her. She’s a woman, she’s an educator, and she’s the incumbent. Her opponent, meanwhile, is a city councilman who tried to ban rap music, lost his previous election for county commission, and now claims it was “stolen” from him.

Trouble is, nobody knows what a lieutenant governor is, nobody knows who either of the people running for the office are, and nobody has any reason to care.

Even so, I’m going to roll the dice on this one. I think all of the statewide races are going to be very close — close enough, perhaps, for a few thousand voters put off by Anthony’s sour grapes to throw their votes at a minor party candidate instead. I’m going to go ahead and predict that our current lieutenant governor keeps her position for her first four year term.

I’d be lying if I said I was particularly confident about it, however.

Conine vs. Fiore

Ford vs. Chattah

Cisco vs. Marchant

The Republicans in all three of these races have no business running a Dairy Queen, much less running for office.

Michele Fiore is struggling to keep track of her campaign’s finances — that doesn’t lend much confidence to her ability to keep track of Nevada’s multi-billion dollar budget. Sigal Chattah is a deeply unpleasant, deeply vindictive, and deeply incompetent attorney who should probably be disbarred. Jim Marchant is a joke — the sort of joke you hear during Thanksgiving from an older family member who was raised to know better and only thinks they can get away with talking like that because they view their family as a captive audience.

It’s undeniably true that it’s usually quite hard to get voters to care, one way or another, about these races. All things being equal, you could use voter registration totals as an ironclad prediction and call it a day.

Fiore, however, already has name recognition, most of it bad even among Republicans. Don’t believe me? Look at her gubernatorial run — she drifted a truck on a playa, shot some bottles, tried to do her Grandma Annie Oakley schtick… and discovered that a punch-drunk martial artist-lawyer from Reno already secured the undying loyalty of the base she was hoping to appeal to. When push came to shove, none of the trips to Malheur and none of the photo ops with the Bundy family washed away the fact that she is not just from Las Vegas — she is of Las Vegas in a way everyone north of Kyle Canyon Road finds instinctively abhorrent.

As for Jim Marchant, his antics have been making national news. He might have been able to convince a few arsenic-poisoned county commissioners to introduce the gospel of QAnon and hand-counted ballots to their election processes, but he peaked too soon — people around the country, thanks to the enthusiasm of his supporters in Nye County, are getting a front row seat of what his election will do to the rest of the state if given half a chance.

Sigal Chattah is admittedly a bit more of an unknown — but it doesn’t take much knowledge about her to know she shouldn’t be in charge of anything with meaningful prosecutorial power.

I think Cisco Aguilar, Zach Conine, and Aaron Ford are going to win all three of these races, and I think two of these races are going to turn out to be surprisingly uncompetitive (meaning two of the three stooges will lose by at least five percentage points). Chattah, however, will come much closer to defeating Ford than she has any right to, in part because she’s less well known than either Fiore or Marchant and in part because Ford won his seat in 2018 in a significantly more favorable partisan environment by a hangnail.

Spiegel vs. Matthews

This, I think, is going to be the one statewide race that just mirrors voter registration and turnout.

Is there a difference between Ellen Spiegel and Andy Matthews? Of course. Does anyone outside of a small handful of lobbyists, journalists, and opinion writers know what the difference between the two is beyond raw party affiliation? I honestly doubt it.

I know a lot of Democrats feel that Matthews — a single-term assemblyman who previously headed a conservative think tank — should be every bit as disqualified from statewide public office as Marchant, Fiore and Chattah. The trouble with Marchant, Fiore and Chattah isn’t that they’re conservative — it’s that they’re conspiratorial boors and they’re obnoxious about it. Matthews, whatever his faults may be, isn’t that — or, if he is, he’s at least quieter and subtler about it, which will be good enough under the circumstances.

There is no way Lombardo wins his election and Republicans lose every other statewide election. Matthews is the least objectionable, most generically Republican-shaped of the rest of the candidates running for statewide office. 

If Lombardo gets elected, Matthews is getting elected, too.

Ballot questions

The polling on Question 1, which amends the Nevada Constitution to guarantee equal rights regardless “of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry, or national origin,” and Question 2, which would amend the Nevada Constitution to set the minimum wage at $12-per-hour, is not particularly close. Republicans might be opposed but neither Democrats nor nonpartisans see a problem with these measures. They’re going to pass in a landslide.

I don’t know if Question 3, which implements open primaries and ranked choice voting, will pass or not. To be successfully ratified, however, it needs to not only pass in this election, it also needs to pass in 2024 — regardless of how this election turns out, I have strong doubts about Question 3’s ability to pull that off. 

The problem I face when evaluating how this ballot measure will perform is that the core constituency of this measure reminds me of the same constituency that voted for the “Energy Choice Initiative” (also Question 3, amusingly enough) in a landslide in 2016, then voted against it in a landslide in 2018 — namely, people who wanted a change and aren’t particularly picky about the details. After the 2016 election, however, the opponents of the Energy Choice Initiative spent the next two years testing every message they could find until they found a set of them that made voters picky — that convinced voters, in other words, that allowing power companies to compete against NV Energy would be scary and potentially harmful to them.

Messaging surrounding the “scariness” of open primaries and ranked choice voting is already starting to stick, which isn’t surprising — both Republican and Democratic candidates and organizations are fighting it tooth and nail and there are always going to be more questions than answers before any new system is implemented. Polling currently shows opinions of Question 3 are currently split more or less down the middle, with a sizable block of undecided voters still trying to make up their minds.

That block might be undecided today. They might remain undecided after Election Day, regardless of how they vote. They will not, however, be undecided after every major political organization in the state spends two years explaining all of the terrible, no good ways Question 3 will make their lives worse.

I’m not saying these arguments will be right. I’m not saying these arguments will be good. I am saying they will, however, be persuasive, focus group tested, and fully funded.

***

Could I be wrong?

No, it’s the voters who are wrong.

I kid, I kid. 

The predictions above are not my preference, nor are they a reflection of my ballot (though there is admittedly some overlap). They’re also not as deeply analytical as the predictions made by Ralston — I didn’t spend hours staring at county controller polling results and voter registration numbers before I made my call in that race, for example. They are, well, opinions — a reflection of my understanding of the vibes in this year’s election.

Like all predictions, these will be absolutely useless after Election Day. If they also turn out to be wrong, well, then I’ll have some crow to eat. Depending on how wrong they are, I may choose to consume my crow in a country that hasn’t signed an extradition treaty.

I kid, I kid. I think. 

I hope.

David Colborne ran for office twice and served on the executive committees for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered nonpartisan voter, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected]

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