A Mysterious, Republican-Backed Recall Campaign Could Flip Nevada Politics

No one is quite sure who is funding it. But it could change the composition of the State Senate.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Republicans in Nevada are trying to push out three state senators in an apparent effort to regain the majority they lost in the 2016 election.

Three Republican-backed recall petitions were filed in August against Sens. Joyce Woodhouse, Nicole Cannizzaro— both Democrats— and Patricia Farley, an independent who caucused with Democrats in the 2017 legislature.

In 2016, Nevada Democrats successfully flipped control of both chambers in the state legislature. Currently, the Nevada State Senate is comprised of 10 Democrats, nine Republicans, and Farley as the sole independent. If two or three of the recall petitions are successful, the resulting special elections could potentially flip the state senate back into GOP control in the 2019 legislative session.

What makes the effort that much more mysterious is that it’s not entirely clear what the justification is behind it. In an August statement, Senate Republican Leader Michael Roberson announced his support for the recalls as a way to stand up against the “pro-felon and anti-business priorities of the Democrats.” But Republicans have not made many more public statements and it’s not entirely clear who is financing the effort.

Registration forms list the names of those leading the recalls, but the numbers listed on the forms are either disconnected or direct to a voicemail that has not been set up.

In an attempt to squash the recall campaign, five constituents of the districts in question are suing the state over its recall laws, which doesn’t require a reason for recalling a lawmaker be submitted. The suit claims that the effort to replace the senators violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act because forcing an “unjustified do-over” would suppress voter turnout and disproportionately impact the district’s large populations of minority voters.

The three lawmakers won their seats “through indisputably legitimate, democratic elections,” according to the lawsuit, “and have not been accused of any incapacity, nonfeasance or misconduct.”

Bradley Schrager, counsel to the Nevada State Democrats, told The Daily Beast he thinks flipping the senate through the recall efforts is “highly unlikely,” especially since they would need to flip more than one seat to be successful.  

“It’s an incredibly cynical and anti-democratic effort because these elections were held just a few months ago, less than a year ago, these people were elected to their seats and the people in their districts wanted them to be representing them in the state senate,” Schrager said. “Everyone knows this and this attempt is a scurrilous attempt basically to steal state senate seats and we have a tremendous problem with that.”

Outside the recall efforts, Schrager said Republicans have little chance of reclaiming their majority. Of the 10 seats up for reelection next year, six are for seats currently held by Republicans while three are strongly Democratic districts.

Woodhouse and Cannizzaro were up for election last year while Farley was elected in 2014 as a Republican and became an independent after the 2016 election. Though Farley won with a comfortable lead, she has already announced that she will not be running. Woodhouse and Cannizzaro won their seats by very slim margins in competitive districts.

Still, the Democratic Party is not taking any chances. Democratic lawmakers have begun a “Decline to Sign” campaign to appeal to voters against signing the recall petitions.

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Clark County Public Information Officer Dan Kulin said that if the recall petitions are successful, each special election would cost taxpayers around $51,000, totaling around $150,000 if elections in all three districts are held. There have been 150 recall efforts at all levels of Nevada state government since 1993, none of which have been successful.

Woodhouse’s district can move to hold a recall election if the petition against her collects 14,412 signatures— or 25 percent of the people in her district who voted in the 2016 election— by Oct. 31. The petitions against Farley and Cannizzaro, which were filed a few days later, have until the second week in November to collect 7,342 and 14,974 signatures, respectively.

Recall Committee Registration Forms specify that the purpose of each effort is to replace each candidate with a Republican. According to registration forms, former Republican Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus, who lost his seat in 2016, is leading the recall effort to replace Woodhouse with Carrie Buck, the Republican candidate who ran against Woodhouse last year’s election. The recall effort against Cannizzaro aims to replace her with April Becker, a Las Vegas-based attorney.

Calls to Becker, Buck, and Silberkraus also went unreturned.