RENO, Nevada — Running behind a popular governor facing a weak opponent, Nevada Republicans thought they could take advantage of midterm malaise and Democrats' dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama.
They were confident they would do well in Tuesday's election but few anticipated the GOP would sweep all six statewide offices, take control of both houses in the Legislature for the first time since 1985 and send a favored incumbent congressman packing.
"It would be a huge lie to say we saw a wave coming on," said Ryan Erwin, a GOP strategist who helped Assemblyman Cresent Hardy score the biggest upset, unseating Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford in the 4th District stretching from North Las Vegas to Ely.
Candidates on both sides may have underestimated the depth of the "red wave" but they also likely didn't anticipate the fervor created by a pair of ballot measures that seemed to drive anti-tax voters to the polls.
The initiatives that progressives proudly pushed onto the ballot ended up having the unintended effect of dragging down Democrats when their faithful largely skipped the election while rural conservatives turned out in numbers close to the norm, political analysts said.
"The ballot initiatives were more attractive to Republicans," said Eric Herzik, head of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. "They came to say 'No to 3' and 'No to 2.'"
Measure 3 would have tapped business profits to fund education. Nearly 80 percent of the voters rejected it — the only choice on the statewide ballot that got more votes than Gov. Brian Sandoval, whose defeat of Bob Goodman with 71 percent was the second largest margin in Nevada's 150-year history.
"That was a big one for us," said Shane Butter, 48, owner of a Las Vegas plumbing business who turned out primarily to vote against the margins tax.
Measure 2, which would have ended a cap on mining taxes written into the state constitution, didn't generate much interest in urban areas, Herzik said, "but clearly it was important to rural Nevada and overwhelmingly lost in rural Nevada."
It lost by only 3,372 votes out of 535,000 ballots cast, winning in Clark County with 54 percent but failing in every other county. It drew 14 percent or less in the mining-dominated Elko, Eureka and Lander counties.
"The message?" the Reno Gazette-Journal said in an editorial Friday. "Don't mess with the rural way of life in Nevada."
The staunch rural opposition to taxes became more significant than usual when Democrats who twice helped Obama carry Nevada lost interest in his administration and found themselves with a gubernatorial nominee they'd never heard of before.
"The top of the ticket was vacant," said Fred Lokken, a political scientist at Truckee Meadows Community College. "And the base that Obama developed in 2008 disintegrated in this election."
"The liberals have left the building. Voter registration is down. The youth have left the party, Hispanics have left the party and women are leaving the party," he said.
Horsford became the perfect victim of what turned into a "perfect storm" for the GOP, Herzik said.
"He relied on minority and young voters in North Vegas and there was no particular pull for them," Herzik said.
Horsford, who had been the first African American majority leader of the state Senate and was expected to easily win re-election to a second congressional term, said as much when he addressed supporters in defeat.
"In reality, this was more about Democrats not coming out to vote," Horsford.
Longtime activists saw it first hand on the front lines.
"It seems this cycle more than others, there was a disconnect between the Democratic operatives, the candidates and the traditional Democratic base," said Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a coalition of union workers, minorities, environmentalists and social justice advocates.
"They weren't on the same page. Everybody was kind of in it for themselves. And that lack of alignment and strategy and collaboration kind of really killed us," Fulkerson said. "We're in a circular firing squad right now. There will be a lot of come-to-Jesus meetings in the next few weeks to see what we did wrong."
Herzik said the party's "incredibly weak ticket" headed by Goodman probably hurt Lucy Flores most in her loss to Republican Mark Hutchison for lieutenant governor.
Goodman, who raised less than $10,000 for his campaign, won the nomination by default in the June primary by finishing second to "none of the above." That allowed Sandoval to spread his $3.7 million campaign fund around and focus on helping defeat Flores.
"She had no protection from above. There was no governor candidate that was tying up Sandoval," Herzik said. "Democratic voters just kind of looked and said, 'This is all you've got?'"
Meanwhile, he said, Republicans had a unified message: "We are not Obama. We will take the country in a different direction."
"It was a negative message, but they did have a message," Herzik said. "In a midterm election for an out party, that is all you have to say."
Pierceall reported from Las Vegas.
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