- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - A nationally important Nevada Senate race that’s been in the background during the primary season is about to burst onto center stage, after Republican Rep. Joe Heck and former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto breezed through their primaries in a quest to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.

The race had been overshadowed by noise in two competitive House primaries that attracted big names - and dollars - from the outside. Those wrapped up Tuesday when state Sen. Ruben Kihuen scored a solid win in a competitive Democratic congressional primary and businessman Danny Tarkanian bested a more moderate state senator in a bitter Republican House contest.

“When they came out with (the commercials), I was concerned that maybe we would lose support,” Tarkanian said about a $1.6 million, last-minute ad buy from a dark money group supporting state Sen. Michael Roberson. “I’ve got to thank the voters of CD3 for not believing that.”

Roberson held the top-ranking post in the state Senate last year and helped shepherd a $1.4 billion, governor-backed tax package through the Legislature - a politically risky feat that dogged him during the congressional primary. He congratulated Tarkanian on a hard-fought race and set his sights on finishing his term.

“I look forward to continuing my work as Senate Majority Leader and working to maintain Republican control of the state Senate in November,” Roberson said in a statement.

Tarkanian, who made several unsuccessful bids for office in the past, will now face Democrat Jacky Rosen, a synagogue leader endorsed by Reid. Rosen beat attorney Jesse Sbaih in the Democratic primary in the southern Nevada district, which is split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

Rosen said she was excited to win her first bid for public office, and quickly turned to what will be a tough race in the swing district. She issued a statement criticizing Tarkanian as “ultra-conservative and “an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump,” adding that he’s “too reckless and too out of touch to represent this district.”

In the 4th Congressional District race that includes North Las Vegas and rural central Nevada, Kihuen pulled far ahead of former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores and philanthropist Susie Lee. The primary was competitive and all candidates raised comparable funds, but Kihuen had backing from Reid and President Bill Clinton, and the hospitality workers of the Culinary Union mobilized a massive ground effort to round up the vote.

In a statement, Kihuen thanked the powerful union “for believing in this campaign and working day in and day out in the hot sun and in the pouring rain to get our message out to the voters.”

He’ll face incumbent Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy, who won an easy primary but has an uphill general election battle in a district that leans solidly Democratic.

Flores was unable to pull out a win even though Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sent wildly successful fundraising pitches on her behalf.

“We did everything we possibly could,” said Flores campaign manager Tony Valdovinos. “Ultimately, low turnout seemed to hurt us the most.”

Lee’s campaign manager, Jonathan Pattillo, congratulated Kihuen and said Lee would support him in spite of the difficult loss.

“We feel we ran a very strong campaign that ran a strong message,” Pattillo said.

The Senate race that now belongs to Heck and Cortez Masto turned out as expected.

Cortez Masto easily defeated a trio of little-known opponents, and Heck scored a comfortable win against conservative activist Sharron Angle in the Nevada primary.

“It’s always humbling to get the support of the voters,” Heck said by phone from Washington D.C. on Tuesday night, where he said he was reading bills to prepare for Wednesday’s work in Congress.

While Trump’s presence could sway his election, Heck, who endorses the presumptive GOP nominee for president, said he’s focused on his own race: “We’re going to run our campaign according to the plan we’ve laid out.”

Masto issued a prepared statement after her victory, saying it sets up a race between two distinct ideologies.

“I am confident that this November voters will reject Trump and Congressman Heck’s reckless agenda and elect me as our next Senator,” she said.

In other races, incumbent Democratic Rep. Dina Titus scored an easy win in her heavily Democratic Las Vegas district. A Republican primary in the 1st Congressional District was too close to call.

Republican Rep. Mark Amodei didn’t have any primary opponents in his solidly Republican northern Nevada district. Democratic talk radio host Chip Evans won the Democratic primary.

Voters weighed in on numerous legislative races, including Republican contests that have exposed deep rifts between the party’s moderate and more conservative wings.

Republican incumbents who supported Sandoval’s tax package mostly survived challenges from anti-tax purists, although several lost their bid for re-election.

The Nevada Secretary of State reports 18.5 percent of Nevada’s 1.3 million active, registered voters turned out for the primary. About 39 percent voted in person on Election Day, while the rest voted early or by absentee ballot.


Associated Press writers Sally Ho and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas and Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.

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