Progressives’ challenge of Democratic senator may have gone awry

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AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

Nevada Senate Democrats Allison Copening and John Lee talk on the Senate floor late Monday night, June 6, 2011, at the Legislature in Carson City.

Fri, May 18, 2012 (2 a.m.)

An effort by progressives to challenge a conservative Democrat standing for re-election in the state Senate may have backfired.

Instead of reminding centrist Democrats that left-of-center groups — environmentalists, gay rights activists, labor unions — need to be respected, the liberal effort to oust state Sen. John Lee has simply reinforced that the party’s establishment, led by Sen. Harry Reid, still wields the biggest political stick in the state.

The party spat was triggered when a new coalition of progressive activists sent mailers attacking Lee, of North Las Vegas, with the hopes of boosting the candidacy of his primary challenger, Pat Spearman.

But while the coalition, Nevada Priorities Political Action Committee, has pulled from the ranks of abortion rights activists, gay and lesbian activists, and environmentalists, the group conspicuously lacks the biggest names in Democratic politics.

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The Rev. Pat Spearman is seen inside her church, Resurrection Faith Community Ministries, in North Las Vegas Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011.

Powerhouses such as the teachers union, the SEIU and the state’s largest union, the AFL-CIO, have all chosen not to make an endorsement in the race.

The decision by those groups not to endorse an incumbent Democrat may be noteworthy, but it isn’t exactly what those leading the charge against Lee had hoped for.

For liberals, ousting Lee was a prime chance to influence policy in Carson City. The state Legislature has cut budgets and made concessions to Republicans for four years now, despite Democrats holding the majority in both houses.

Lee was their chance to use a lever that conservatives have mastered: Challenge an incumbent in a primary and remind elected officials that the base can’t be taken for granted.

“We think this is the right thing to do, to stand up for Democratic values in a Democratic primary,” said Erin Neff, executive director of ProgressNow Nevada Action.

Members of the coalition, including the Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, Nevada Conservation League and Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Action Network, “get it,” Neff said.

“They’re putting their name out there in a very difficult way,” she said. “It’s not easy to stand up to your own party.”

Lee, a conservative Democrat, has been progressives’ enemy in Carson City. He often votes against Democratic majorities on key issues for liberals such as domestic partnerships, minimum wage and environmental issues. His tendency to go rogue often required special attention from Democratic leadership to keep him in the fold.

Lee’s original plan this year was to abandon his Senate seat in favor of running for Congress. He was expected to challenge a darling of the Democratic establishment, Sen. Steve Horsford, in the 4th Congressional District.

But Lee’s decision to drop out of the congressional race seems to have earned him the protection of the Democratic establishment against the liberal activists intent on driving him from office.

Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, who had announced he was running for Lee’s Senate seat, decided to move rather than challenge Lee. Other candidates whom progressives tried to recruit to run against Lee also backed out, before Spearman filed on the last day.

And then the liberal coalition’s potential partners dropped out.

“I would love the coalition to be very large, with major support,” Neff said. “There are reasons other members can’t be part of this. I respect that. I understand those processes.”

To be sure, in a low turnout state Senate primary, Lee is not a shoo-in to win despite the power of incumbency.

That means support from the party and Reid, who Lee lists as a supporter on his website, is key.

“John is very thankful and grateful for the support of the Democratic Party and Democratic constituents,” said Ryann Juden, Lee’s campaign adviser. “He’s happy and thankful to have their support.”

He said the party’s support has “absolutely” helped.

“In the traditional way a party helps a campaign,” he said. The party has helped provide volunteers and “resources necessary to get out and connect with voters.”

The Democratic Party declined to comment for this story.

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Senate Marjority Leader Steven Horsford rallies community members while speaking during the 2012 Democratic Caucus Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, at Cheyenne High School.

The winner of the primary is almost certain to win the seat. No Republican filed in the heavily Democratic seat, and the Democratic victor will face a minor party candidate in November’s election.

Juden said Lee decided not to run for Congress against Horsford to help the party.

“He knew how important it was, with this election, in making sure President Obama gets re-elected,” said Juden. “We couldn’t have resources go into a contested primary for Congress. It was not in the party’s best interest to have a costly primary.”

Danny Thompson, head of the AFL-CIO, said his group couldn’t reach a consensus on whom to endorse.

“Too many people had problems with his voting record,” Thompson said of Lee. “And this is on key issues. You’re not going to get somebody every time. But when someone abandons you on key issues, it’s certainly reflective.”

Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said her group couldn’t endorse formally because of the timeline — neither candidate got the endorsement in earlier rounds, and the next meeting of the group’s board isn’t until after the primary.

“It was just pretty split,” Warne said. “We were concerned about positions he has taken in the past. ... However, on the other side, he never served a position on the education committees or finance, where, say, he did something outrageously contrary to our position.”

And that could be an uncomfortable message for the base to send to elected Democrats — it takes something “outrageously contrary” for them to oppose you.

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