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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 01/21/2011

Odds good for Democrats as Nevada adds a seat

By Aaron Blake

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This is the eighth in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Nevada. (And make sure to check out the first seven installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and California)

Explosive growth in the Las Vegas area means Nevada will gain a congressional seat in 2012. And that's likely to benefit Democrats.

A Democratic-controlled legislature and a Republican governor mean the redistricting process will be split. But whether state legislators work out a deal or the courts wind up drawing the map, Democrats should have a good opportunity to at least even the score in the state, where Republicans currently hold two of three congressional districts.

Nevada, the fastest-growing state in the country, is a Democratic-trending swing state at the presidential level, having gone for President Bush in 2004 and President Obama in 2008.

And, since neither side has full control of the drawing of the map, the logical solution would be to split the map -- either create two Republican districts and two Democratic districts, or draw one safe district for each party and two competitive districts.

"Republicans and Democrats both believe that they can draw three-to-one maps, and the truth is either one could," said Republican consultant Ryan Erwin, "But neither of them could get it through the legislature and get the governor to sign it."

Democrats could try to get an edge, though The party might cite its registration advantage in the state -- it has about 70,000 more active voters than Republicans thanks in large part to the ultra-competitive 2008 Democratic presidential primary -- to push for only one safe Republican district.

"It's not a stretch to see how you could create a map with two strong lean-Democratic districts, one Republican district and one competitive district," said Tom Bonier, chief operating officer at the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which advises Democrats on redistricting. "The question is whether Democrats will propose it and whether the governor would stomach it." (Gov. Brian Sandoval is a Republican, and the Democrats cannot override a veto.)

The large growth in Las Vegas-based Clark County means that the new district will be based there. The county now contains nearly three-fourths of the state's population, so at least three districts will have to take in large parts of the county's population (while the fourth district will likely be headquartered in the state's other population center -- Reno-based Washoe County).

Right now, most of Clark County's population is contained in two districts -- the heavily Democratic 1st district held by Rep. Shelley Berkley in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, and the suburban 3rd district that is now held by freshman Republican Rep. Joe Heck, which is Democratic-leaning seat. The 2nd district, which is Republican-tilting, includes every other county in the state (along with a few voters in Clark County) and belongs to Republican Rep. Dean Heller.

(Follow along on the congressional map here.)

The major changes that will be made are the creation of a new district and the shrinking of Heck's and Berkley's districts.

Heck's district is the biggest population-wise in the country, thanks to rapid growth, and has been estimated as the first congressional district to reach one million residents. Berkley's has also grown fast, and their two districts can essentially be morphed into three, if that's what the map-drawers want to do.

If you take the more Democratic parts of Heck's district and add parts of Berkley's district, it's easy to make two Democratic districts and one Republican district in Clark County. One of those districts (potentially Heck's) may have to take in some rural counties north of Clark County, but the areas between there and the Reno area are so sparsely populated that things wouldn't change that much.

If Democrats push for two Democratic seats and one competitive seat in Clark County, the new seat wouldn't take quite so many Democrats from Heck, leaving his district marginal but also leaving the new Democratic district less safe.

Nevada Democratic consultant Kami Dempsey, who works on redistricting matters, suggested Democrats could earn redistricting concessions from Sandoval (R) during the looming budget debate.

"We have about a $3 billion shortfall that we have to fill," Dempsey. "Who knows what deals will be struck through that process?"

Heller, meanwhile, could get safer by dropping the little territory he has in Clark County, which is slightly Republican but not as much as other parts of his district. Or he could give away more of northern Nevada to another district and take in some more GOP parts of Clark County.

Heller is popular and pretty safe, but his district almost went for President Obama in 2008, and Republicans may want to shore him up just to make sure they don't lose the district if Heller were ever to leave or run for higher office.

Which brings us to a major x-factor: Heller and Berkley are both looking at a run for the Sen. John Ensign's (R-Nev.) seat in 2012.

If either or both make the statewide leap and do it soon (i.e. before redistricting is done), they may not be as concerned about keeping their districts intact. And Berkley's district, in particular, could undergo wholesale changes if she vacates it.

The subplot in all of this is a coterie of ambitious Clark County Democrats who will be looking to run for Congress in 2012 -- a list that includes, but isn't limited to, state House Speaker John Oceguera, state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, former Rep. Dina Titus, and 2010 Democratic governor nominee Rory Reid.

Reid, the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is already being floated for the seat. And Titus, who lost her seat to Heck in November, has said she's looking to run in the new district too.

"It will be a Democratic seat, a southern seat and will include part of what I represented, so I will definitely be looking at it," Titus told the Las Vegas Sun.

The question is whether Titus and Reid have one district to run in, or whether they have two or even three.

All of them will want the new district drawn for them, and its location could have a major impact on who wins the seat. They are all from different parts of the county, and by drawing those areas in or out of a new district, the map-makers could give one of those candidates a leg up on competitors in a Democratic primary.

But even if they don't get drawn in to the new district, there's still hope. If Heck's district remains competitive and/or Berkley retires, there would still be opportunities to run.

Another major question in Clark County is whether the map-makers try to create a majority-Hispanic district -- a growing possibility given the increasing size of that community. And if they do create such a district, it could benefit a Hispanic candidate.

Regardless of whether Heller runs for Senate, his district is still likely to be based in Washoe County. So we're going to see a similar cast of characters to the one we saw in 2006 when Heller first ran for the seat, beating 2010 GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle by less than 500 votes in the primary.

Keep in mind through all of this: Nevada is the first state we've looked at in this series where control of the redistricting process is split between parties. That makes for a difficult negotiating process, and any failure to agree could pretty easily lead to the courts drawing the map.

The congressional delegation gets along well, and it's a common practice for the delegation to reach a compromise that the state legislature rubber stamps. But adding a fourth seat to the map complicates things, and certain state legislators will be personally interested in how the congressional map turns out.

"Most folks think it is quite likely, because of makeup in capital, that this will be decided by the judicial branch," said Nevada political guru Jon Ralston.

Even then, though, much of the above still applies. There will be three districts in Clark County, and the county has many more registered Democrats than Republicans. The GOP may not be able to count on getting a Republican-leaning Clark County district from the court, so it may be willing to make a deal with Democrats.

Whatever the outcome, the Democrats' days as a minority in the congressional delegation could be numbered.

By Aaron Blake  | January 21, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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