As embattled Kihuen stands down, a look at who’s in, out and on the fence for Nevada House seat

By Michelle Rindels

The Nevada Independent

With news that Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen won’t seek reelection in 2018 amid accusations of sexual harassment, all eyes are turning to who might replace him.

Kihuen would have been the favorite in the district, which includes North Las Vegas and rural, central Nevada. But stories from four women who have spoken out publicly about unwanted advances (he continues to deny the allegations) and an impending investigation from the House Ethics Committee threaten to sink any 2018 bid.

“The allegations that have surfaced would be a distraction from a fair and thorough discussion of the issues in a reelection campaign,” the freshman lawmaker said in a statement on Saturday. “Therefore, it is in the best interests of my family and my constituents to complete my term in Congress and not seek reelection.”

The outcome of the race now that the seat is open is less sure, even though the district has a 10-percentage point Democratic registration advantage — a lead of about 36,600 more registered voters.

The 4th Congressional District went for Republican Cresent Hardy in a 2014 upset. That same cycle, Democrat Ross Miller narrowly won the district in a tight attorney general race he ultimately lost to Adam Laxalt, even though Republicans Gov. Brian Sandoval and Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison handily won the district in their less-competitive races.

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won 49.5 percent of votes in the district compared with Trump’s 44.6 percent. Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto garnered 48.8 percent of votes in the district compared with Republican Joe Heck’s 42.5 percent.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sounded an optimistic note for the party in light of the Kihuen setback, referencing a victory in 2016 when Rep. Jacky Rosen and Danny Tarkanian faced off for the open 3rd Congressional District seat. They’re also banking on anti-Trump fervor to boost their prospects in the midterms.

“Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District will remain in Democrats’ hands,” vowed the group’s spokeswoman, Meredith Kelly. “The DCCC has a recent, proven track record of winning open seats in Nevada, and will do it again in 2018. This is a fundamentally Democratic district, which will be all but impossible for Republicans to overcome when combined with their inability to recruit strong candidates, the overwhelming grassroots energy behind Democrats, and their cruel, anti-middle class agenda.”

The contenders

Democrat Steven Horsford, a former state Senate majority leader who won the seat in 2012 before losing it to Hardy, is considered a prime prospect for the race. Since leaving Congress, he’s served as president of Resources Plus, a consulting firm whose clients have included the American Gaming Association and the MGM National Harbor resort outside of Washington, D.C.

Horsford has been soliciting input from friends, family and supporters as he deliberates a run.

Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman, who will be halfway through a four-year Senate term in 2018, said she’s “strongly considering” jumping into the race. She wanted to run for secretary of state before stepping aside to avoid a primary with Assemblyman Nelson Araujo.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent on Saturday, she said she’d been fielding calls nonstop from people who want her to seek Kihuen’s post. She pointed to the decisive role that African-American women played in Alabama to elect Democrat Doug Jones to the Senate over Republican Roy Moore.

“There have been a number of African-American women who say it’s time we recognize that we carry the load. People have to support strong women to get elected to office,” said Spearman, who is African-American.

She thanked Kihuen for his contributions in Congress and said she thinks he’ll continue his advocacy for immigrants and DREAMers even outside the House. Although Spearman, who was a victim of sexual harassment while in the military, didn’t comment directly on the merit of the accusations, she noted that women who are harassed generally do not make allegations to draw attention to themselves and that they need to be listened to.

“It’s disappointing. I also have to view through the lens of a pastor — it’s very sad,” she said. “We’ve got to pray for Congressman Kihuen and his family.”

Asked about whether she was interested in running for the seat, Democratic state Sen. Yvanna Cancela pointed out that she was busy in her first year at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law. Cancela, who was political director of the Culinary Union when the group helped Kihuen win his House seat, was appointed in 2016 to fill his seat in the Legislature and has said she will be running for election to the seat in 2018.

“I’ve been approached about it but have been consumed with law school finals,” she wrote in an email on Saturday.

Amy Vilela, a progressive Democrat with support from a group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders, launched a campaign in July with a focus on health care. She has criticized Kihuen for failing to co-sponsor a bill that would provide Medicare for all — something she thinks could have prevented the death of her 22-year-old daughter Shalynne, who didn’t have health insurance when she suffered a swollen leg and then a pulmonary embolism in 2015.

She said she was motivated to run by Kihuen’s position on the issue but his absence from the race won’t change her enthusiasm for participating.

“I really, truly believe that only a bold progressive can energize the party,” she said. “People are more awoke than they’ve ever been in politics and they’re starting to feel the effects of being lulled to sleep with policies that aren’t really addressing the needs of Americans.”

Vilela, who worked in finance and accounting for nonprofit organizations and public sector agencies before quitting her job to campaign, reported raising slightly less than $5,500 in the last FEC quarter. That was a drop in the bucket compared with the $217,926 Kihuen raised that quarter, and just a fraction of the nearly half-million-dollar war chest he had amassed, although she said she has more than 3,000 individual donors and has seen support growing.

She said she was proud to live in an era with the “Me Too” movement in which women are speaking out against sexual harassment.

“My thoughts are with the brave women who came forward and the countless women who have to deal with that toxic environment,” she said.

Democratic North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee told The Nevada Independent on Monday that he was “strongly considering” a run, but wanted to see how things shook out with Kihuen and if he decided to stay in the seat before offering any campaign platform or points to run on.

The conservative Democrat was defeated in a state Senate primary in 2012 by Spearman before successfully launching a bid for mayor in 2013 and winning reelection to another four-year term earlier this year. He said he had been contacted by several people about running and wouldn’t necessarily back away if other major candidates, such as Horsford, throw their hat in the ring.

“I won’t acquiesce to anyone if I decide to run,” he said.

Other Democrats being discussed as possible candidates include Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, although she has said she’s committed to the gubernatorial race. She’s in a primary with well-funded, Harry Reid-endorsed fellow commissioner Steve Sisolak.

Giunchigliani is in her third and final term, which ends in 2018.

Democrat Susie Lee, who lost to Kihuen in the 2016 primary, also told The Nevada Independent that she won’t be jumping into the 4th Congressional District race.

“Since launching my campaign for the 3rd District in September, I have been honored by the outpouring of support. I look forward to continuing our campaign to represent the people of the 3rd District, and will not be running in the 4th.”

On the Republican side, Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony said he’s still continuing his bid for the seat and would run whether it’s in the regular 2018 election or if Kihuen resigns early and there’s a special election for his replacement (the state Republican Party central committee would get to choose the party’s nominee should the governor call a special election).

He won a third and final four-year term on the council earlier this year. He posted strong fundraising numbers in his House bid, raising $141,145 in the last quarter — a figure that eclipsed that of candidates in the crowded 3rd Congressional District Republican primary.

“It’s a much better position to be in,” he said Monday about running for an open seat rather than against an incumbent, “but I’m just going to continue doing what I was doing before Ruben decided not to run for re-election.”

Republican former Rep. Cresent Hardy said earlier this month that he’s considering running again for his old seat even though he said this summer that he wouldn’t throw his hat in for the 2018 cycle.

“I continue to get a lot of people requesting that I would run again, so I just said I’m considering, try to think about it, pray about it,” he said. “That’s what I have to do — get myself in the right position to do it for the right reasons.”

A spokesman said Monday that Hardy didn’t have further comment.

Riley Snyder contributed to this report. This article was first reported on The Nevada Independent website.

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