Nicole Cannizzaro ran for office on the promise of improving educational and economic opportunities for her fellow Nevadans. And after voters sent her to the state Senate last November, she felt she had done just that.
So she was surprised, to say the least, when, in August, she came across an ominous tweet from a local reporter: Just ten months into her four-year term, someone was launching a campaign to trigger a special election and boot her from office.
“I was stunned, frankly,” the 34-year-old Democrat told Refinery29 in a recent interview. “There’s no crime I’ve committed, there’s been no money that’s been embezzled, there’s no scandal. It just came out of the blue.”
But though the attack felt random to Cannizzaro, it appears the effort to target the freshman senator was anything but. In fact, she’s one of three female senators in the state currently at risk of losing their job in an effort veteran political observers say is a blatant power grab by Republicans seeking to take back the state legislative majority they lost in the election. The off-year electoral attack in the Silver State has ignited a political battle that's sparked allegations of shadowy motives (and money), claims of voter intimidation and harassment, and a legal fight. The outcome could alter the balance of power in Nevada’s legislature, knock back gains in gender parity in the capital, and impact the future of the state's elections. It's no surprise that the bid for power has also caught the attention of national Democratic players, who blast the tactic as part of a larger trend of Republicans manipulating political processes and rules to sway elections.
“Judging by the Nevada Republicans’ playbook: If you can’t win an election fairly, then steal, steal, steal,” Stephanie Schriock, president of the pro-choice Democratic PAC Emily’s List, said in a statement to Refinery29. “What's alarming is that, should the Nevada Republican Party succeed in stealing these seats, it raises the question: Will it embolden Republicans to use these same shameless, undemocratic tactics in other states?"
All three Nevada state senators under attack — Cannizzaro, fellow Democrat Joyce Woodhouse and Patricia Farley, a Republican-turned-Independent who caucuses with the Democrats — are being targeted with a recall, a process that allows citizens to oust a specific lawmaker from office mid-term. In most states that allow recalls, including Nevada, the process goes something like this: an aggrieved constituent files a recall against an elected official, then if they can collect enough valid signatures from fellow voters in a certain window of time (in this case, based on the district, it ranges between 7,000 and 14,000 in 90 days) a special election is called.
In most cases, the cause for a recall is clear: maybe the lawmaker stands accused of embezzlement charges, or they reneged on an election promise to voters by backing a tax increase after making a no-new-taxes pledge. But not this time. Nevada, unlike many other states that allow for recalls, doesn’t require that the petitioners demonstrate malfeasance on the part of the targeted lawmaker or state any reason for the campaign at all. Those arguments that have been offered — largely votes and positions on hot-button issues and being "out of touch" with the district — are more about an issue of a ideological difference than actual misdeeds or failure to perform the duties of the job. What's more, petition language obtained by longtime Nevada political columnist Jon Ralston shows that the recall proponents themselves are peddling falsehoods and failing to note that the GOP supported some of the same exact policies that supposedly sparked the campaign in the first place. "The premise of the recalls is a sham," he concluded in a recent piece.
So why then, are these three senators being targeted? To answer that question, you need to take a look at Nevada’s current political landscape and map. In an election that handed Democrats devastating defeats up and down the ballot, the 2016 Silver State results proved to be a rare bright spot for the left. In addition to sending Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto to the U.S. Senate, voters in the perennial swing state delivered the Democratic Party a narrow majority in the state Senate. With Independent Farley in the equation, a number of senators that will propel the GOP back in control is, you guessed it, three.
The outlook for Republicans to win back that majority in 2018 doesn’t look good, political observers say, and a competitive and open gubernatorial race could give Democrats total control in the state Capitol next year. It appears, the GOP has decided its best shot is to try to take back three seats mid-year in low-turnout recall races. Democrats Cannizzaro and Woodhouse, both of whom won by razor-thin margins in swing districts, wouldn’t otherwise be up for a re-election until 2020. And Farley, who very well might draw understandable ire from GOP constituents for switching parties mid-term, is retiring from office next year. Because of the state’s legislative calendar, she likely won’t cast any more votes before leaving office.
The strategy against the Democratic incumbents in particular, while legal, sets a “a frightening precedent of 'we didn’t win, so we can try to backdoor you out and backdoor in our candidate in because no one’s looking in a low-turnout election,'" according to Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at University of Nevada, Reno.
“This is just a raw partisan move: that we can take out a duly-elected Democrat before the end of their term and possibly replace her with a Republican,” he told Refinery29. “It certainly violates the spirit of the electoral system and just brings in a level of partisanship that Nevada avoided until recently.”
The actual petitioners behind the recalls haven’t said much about their aims (questions sent through a prominent GOP attorney representing all three efforts were unanswered as of press time). But the GOP leader in the state Senate has come out in support of the recalls, putting the blame on Democratic policies. “After witnessing the breathtaking pro-felon and anti-business priorities of the Democrats this past legislative session, it’s no surprise to me that Nevadans are standing up to their destructive, job-killing agenda,” Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson said in a statement to local papers.
If successful, the special elections targeting Cannizzaro and others would likely hit around the holidays. It might not get that far: Collecting the requisite number of signatures is a costly and difficult endeavor, which is one of the reasons it's been more than 20 years since a Nevada legislator was successfully recalled. But because there’s no required immediate disclosure of who is funding the campaign — or how many zeros a benefactor is adding to their contribution checks — it’s hard to know whether petitioners have a shot until the deadlines for submitting the signatures begin to hit later this month. On top of that, Cannizzaro and aides say they've received reports of aggressive and troubling tactics from the petition circulators, such as spreading misinformation (Cannizzaro says some voters were told she is a Republican) and refusing to leave a constituent's stoop unless they sign.
Just last week, another hurdle to the recalls emerged: A group of citizens filed a lawsuit seeking to block the effort. The suit, backed by Hillary Clinton’s former general counsel, claims the recalls are baseless and would “upend the undisputed results of legitimate and regularly scheduled elections.”
“They’re using it to settle political scores from the last election,” the lawyer, Marc Elias told The Nevada Independent. “If [the recalls are] allowed to proceed, that will be the first step down a road where elections cease to be for a full term, rather become a constant back and forth between political parties trying to get the upper hand at any one moment in time, and will severely undermine our democracy.”
Beyond the political impact, the recalls could have consequences on another issue of national interest: gender parity in state Legislatures. With about 40% of seats filled by women, Nevada ranks No. 2 in the nation for women in this crucial level of government.
Two of the recall campaigns expressed an intent to replace the incumbent with a female rival, but it’s possible that any special election could result in fewer women of office. While there are no indications that they were targeted because of their gender, Schriock, from Emily’s List, believes that all three of the lawmakers under fire are women is “not a coincidence.”
It’s something that’s crossed Cannizzaro’s mind, too. Especially since during the last session, the female-dominated Legislature pushed forward proposals related to the tampon tax, equal pay, and workplace discrimination protection for pregnant women.
“I don’t know that I can say for sure,” she said. “But there is something to be said for the fact that you’ve got three strong female legislators who really did push for policies for working women.”