MY COLUMN: On the eve of filing, the top 10 questions for Campaign '14

The end of the beginning starts Monday.

Candidates are not really candidates until they sign papers within the next two weeks of candidate filing.  But few surprises are left, although I’d guess someone we don’t expect to be on the ballot in 2014 will be. No, I don’t expect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to declare he is returning to challenge Gov. Brian Sandoval. But something unforeseen, perhaps more than minor (hello, Sharron Angle!) usually occurs during the furious fortnight.

I don’t expect filing to change much in the major races, so herewith I give you the top 10 questions for Campaign ’14 in Nevada:

1.    How brightly will Gov. Brian Sandoval shine? Forget whether he gets more than Gov. Kenny Guinn’s 68 percent in 2002. The real question, whether some mid-term state senator takes a flier or whether Angle runs against him in a primary, is whether Sandoval can pull other candidates to victory. It starts with state Sen. Mark Hutchison, his gubernatorial designee should he leave at mid-term to take on Reid or pursue a federal appointment. But it proceeds down the ticket in constitutional office races all the way to THE critical state Senate contest (Justin Jones’ seat) and a handful of Assembly races where turnout, as it always does, will matter.

2.   What will the margin of defeat be? No filing for this, but it remains the most important vote anyone will cast this year: for or against The Education Initiative, a k a the margin tax. (Notice opponents never call it by its official name because who wants to be against “The Education Initiative,” right?) It’s almost a given in CW circles that the effort will fail. Labor is taking a powder, the teachers are proving John Donne wrong. I don’t think it’s out of the question for the Coalition to Stop the Margin Tax That Will Destroy Life as We Know It (I think that’s the name) to overplay its hand. But if you have all of the cards, that might not matter, so the biggest sport will be watching Democratic candidates run away from it or get laryngitis when asked for a position.

3.   Will Sue Lowden write a large enough check? The GOP primary in the lieutenant governor’s race should not be a contest. Mark Hutchison has all the money, maybe seven figures by now, and he has the most popular elected official on his side. Team Hutchoval should roll over Sue Lowden. But unless she decides not to file, which is what Team Hutchoval has been hoping for, her ability to run to his right and provoke him (See "Ralston Reports".) could make this race interesting. Hutchison has had a political honeymoon so far in his short time in politics, so we will see if he can take a punch. If Lowden puts in enough money, she will be competitive with an electorate that may only number about 125,000 voters.

4.   Who will love Lucy? Assemblywoman Lucy Flores anticlimactic announcement Saturday that she is running for lieutenant governor completes an odyssey for the Democratic elites that went from “Oh no” to “Get Susie Lee” to “Ok Lucy.” She is, as someone described her, a high-risk but potentially high-reward candidate. She is a bit of a loner but she also has national connections and may tap into Hispanic and female group money outside Nevada. And there’s a guy in DC who really wants her there so Sandoval doesn’t listen to the siren song that will be playing from national Republicans after he wins in November. The Party of Reid wants Lowden because of the oppo file the senator never got to use and those folks won’t be chicken to this time. But even if it’s Hutchison, if Flores can energize the base and gets a threshold amount of money, don’t underestimate her.

5.   Can the GOP keep up with Jones? Justin Jones – again – is the key to control of the upper house of the Legislature. He won his state Senate seat by 300 votes; if half of those had switched, the GOP would be in control of the upper house, and we might have had a mining tax (I kid.). Jones has a 2-to-1 fundraising edge over would-be Majority Leader Michael Roberson’s choice, Becky Harris. But she has a primary, unless Vick Gill, a self-funding doctor, backs out again. Roberson is committed/obsessed (choose your verb) with defeating Jones this time, but he also is distracted with his own primary (see below). The district is competitive, and it could be more expensive than the Greg Brower-Sheila Leslie race from last cycle, another close race that she lost by 266 votes. Guns, gay marriage and other hot button issues might play, along with plenty of third-party spending. Senate District 9 is the place to be this cycle.

6.   Who will pass the June litmus test? The badly riven GOP, under the “leadership” of Michael McDonald, has encouraged primaries against legislative incumbents that essentially are tests of fiscal purity: Have you now or will you ever support a tax increase? The inane tax pledge, the Citizen Outreach party takeover give me reason to say these challengers should not be taken seriously. But some – Carl and Richard Bunce, for instance – have grass-roots campaigning experience (taking on Roberson and Assemblyman Lynn Stewart) and several others have the ability to self-fund, thus leveling the playing field. If incumbents lose and the party is seen as enabling the winners, it will be a long, hot summer for the GOP.

7.   In the battle of dynasties, is it Miller time or Laxalt time? Most insiders don’t give Adam Laxalt, grandson of a senator most Nevadans probably don’t remember, a chance against Ross Miller, son of a governor a sizable portion of the electorate has forgotten, too. That’s the nature of politics; memories are short. But the dynasty angle is what makes this race interesting, and could give Laxalt, who has never been active here, a chance. Laxalt will need help from outside Nevada, and grandpa’s old friends already are tryingLaxalt could be helped by the top of the ticket, and the possibility of a weak Democratic year. But Miller has seven figures, or close, and that will matter.

8.   Can Erin Bilbray turn it around? The short answer: Of course. In CD3, which is one of the country’s most-watched swing districts, national atmospherics and factors could matter. Unfortunately for Bilbray, there is nothing yet to suggest those will help Democrats, and combined with her shaky campaign start, which included a manager shuffling, she is a clear underdog to Rep. Joe Heck. Some national observers, who can influence fundraising, already have moved CD3 off their watch list. It won’t take a miracle, and I don’t underestimate the Democratic machine here. But she will need near-perfection from here.

9.   Can the GOP fundamentally move the state from purple to leaning red? This would seem unlikely, with the Democrats holding a 60,000-voter registration edge. But if the Republicans can make substantial inroads, take away some constitutional offices, take over the state Senate and gain seats in the Assembly, that would be quite ominous for the Democrats. The Democrats arguably have better candidates in the races for attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state and controller, but none of those races are locks. The Democrats have to be hoping to have five of six (not the top one). But if the GOP can pull off a few surprises, the outlook here for 2016 may be quite different.

10. What about the little house that couldn’t? People tend to forget about the Assembly because it’s a given that the Republicans are too far behind (27-15, thank you, redistricting)  to take control. But if there is a GOP sweep, starting at the top and trickling down, that could turn Democratic lower house seats into Republican seats. I still think it’s likely that Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick will have a substantial cushion to do what she wants in her last session. But if the GOP gets close, and the Republicans control the Senate and the governorship, the Democratic power in the Legislative Building will be greatly diminished.