LAS VEGAS (AP) — Lucy Flores was a candidate with a life story straight out of Hollywood — one of 13 children who grew up in a rough Las Vegas neighborhood, a former gang member who straightened out, went to law school, became a state legislator and now was running for lieutenant governor. She earned glowing profiles in the national press.
Last week, however, Flores was crushed in the lieutenant governor's race, doomed by dismal Democratic turnout that also toppled many of this state's diverse slate of rising young Democrats. They included attorney general hopeful Ross Miller, the secretary of state and son of a former governor, and Rep. Steven Horsford, one of the few African-Americans in Congress whose district is not majority black.
"It was a bad environment for Democrats this year," Flores said in an interview Friday. "I was grossly outspent. We did what we could and we were very successful with the little we had, but I was not able to respond to false attack ads."
As Democrats lost more than 300 statehouse seats last week, they watched some of their most promising political up-and-comers go down in defeat. Republicans, meanwhile, stocked their bench with a roster of rising stars who could someday run for higher office.
"We knocked out some really golden people for the Democrats, and provided a strong platform for our candidates to cut their teeth," said Jill Bader, spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee. "Our candidates who won are going to be in an unbelievably stronger position and have two-to-four years of statewide media exposure, build strong teams and staff."
Flores left a safe assembly seat to seek the part-time lieutenant governor's post, which could lead to the governorship if popular GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval challenges Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid in 2016. But she was up against Sandoval's chosen successor, state Sen. Mark Hutchison, who rode the coattails of the governor's blowout win for re-election, and drew from his vast cash reserves.
To see how important it is to build a bench, just look at the Republicans' class of 2010. That wave election knocked out possible national Democratic figures like Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and stocked the GOP's cabinet with possible 2016 contenders and other rising stars like Florida Sen Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez and Sandoval himself.
Republicans this year are celebrating a number of diverse new office-holders that they hope belie the image of their party as the preserve of white men — Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Janet Nguyen and Young Kim, who won state senate seats in Southern California. Democrats can boast of some potential rising stars too, like New Mexico's new Attorney General Hector Balderas or Rhode Island's next Gov., Gina Raimondo. But there are far fewer Democrats to tout.
Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said fears of a declining Democratic bench are overblown. "We had a lot of Democratic candidates who fell just short this time who I don't think we've heard the last of," he said.
In Nevada, Republicans now control all levels of state government. The lone Democrat elected statewide is Reid, 74.
Democrats failed to pit a top-tier challenger against Sandoval, which contributed to voter malaise and record-low turnout.
Among the collateral damage were Horsford, a freshman congressman who wasn't even considered endangered until low Democratic early turnout triggered a flood of outside money targeting him, and Miller, who had been considered the attorney general front-runner and a possible future governor.
The two sidelined Democrats will have to find a way to support themselves for at least the next two years. They also run the risk of getting comfortable away from the political grind, according to Sheila Leslie, a former Nevada lawmaker who left her safe Democratic Senate seat in 2012 in an unsuccessful bid to help her party by unseating an incumbent Republican state senator.
"The danger of a break is they'll discover what life is like out of elected office," she said.
Flores said she's keeping her options open for potential political runs in 2016 or 2018. In the meantime, she said she plans to return to her day job at a Las Vegas law firm, stay active in her community and advocate for issues she worked on as an assemblywoman.
"I think it just gives everyone an opportunity to refocus, regroup, and start laying the groundwork on what's necessary to be successful in 2016," she said. "When there's a failure of sorts, what you do is you learn from any mistakes, you improve and you get better, and generally that's what that's what the Democratic Party is going to do in Nevada."