News Column

In Purple Silver State, Race Is a Tossup

Nov. 5, 2012

William M. Welch, USA TODAY

With a barrage of attack ads that confront TV viewers around the clock, rookie Republican Sen. Dean Heller is trying to hold his seat against a similarly negative video assault from his challenger in a race that has put Nevada at the center of the struggle over Senate control.

Heller, 52, appointed to the seat when his Republican predecessor resigned after an affair and an ethics investigation, has relentlessly attacked Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley as an ethics-challenged tool of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as she tries to move up to the Senate after seven terms as a congresswoman.

Berkley, 61, denies the ethics charges and dismisses them as tame stuff by Las Vegas' Sin City standards. She is being investigated over whether she improperly used her influence to benefit her husband.

Berkley is relying on President Obama's power to turn out Democrats, especially Latino voters, to lift her in this fast-growing but economically hard-hit state. She ties Heller to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and charges he would "gut" education and end Medicare's guarantee of health care for seniors.

The result is a cacophony of unpleasant TV viewing -- fueled by more than $20 million from political committees, unions and other outside groups -- that has driven up both candidates' unfavorable ratings. "It's two unlikeable candidates running highly negative campaigns," says David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Both sides are spending heavily to try to break through to Nevada voters who have found their state playing an outsized role in 2012 politics.

Democrats switched Nevada to blue in 2008 when Obama won handily here, and they stunned Republicans two years later when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won re-election by 6 percentage points against a Tea Party-backed GOP candidate despite polls suggesting Reid was well behind. Heller, like Romney and Reid, is Mormon, and Mormons make up 6% of Nevada's population.

Republicans think there's plenty of reason they should win Nevada, where the housing collapse hit hard and unemployment, at 11.8%, is the highest in the nation. However, changing demographics with a rapidly growing Latino vote, as well as a proven Democratic get-out-the-vote operation, gives Democrats cause for optimism.

Obama has a small lead in recent polling here, and the president runs ahead of Berkley in most surveys. She is relying on Reid's political organization to give her a lift.

"This is probably the bluest purple state in the country," says Heller's campaign manager, Mac Abrams, explaining the party's challenge this year in Nevada.

Repeated visits by Romney and Obama have given Heller and Berkley the opportunity to appear before large crowds, but most of the campaigning is being done on airwaves.

In one of his few recent public appearances, Heller touted Romney before a large, mostly white crowd in suburban Henderson, boasting that the Republican presidential nominee would create 14 million jobs as president -- 2 million more than Romney promised moments later. "I have an opponent who votes with Pelosi 97% of the time," Heller said.

A day later, before a large and ethnically diverse crowd that turned out to see Obama in North Las Vegas, Berkley charged that the Republican candidates would "shred the guarantee of Social Security and Medicare," slash education spending and set back women's efforts to receive pay equality with men.

Heller has held a small lead in most independent polls. The average of polls has Heller ahead by 3.5 percentage points, while it shows Obama ahead in the state 50%-47.6%.

The seat has been in GOP hands for years. Heller was appointed to it last year after GOP Sen. John Ensign resigned. So it represents a rare opportunity for Democrats to take a seat from Republicans in the fight to protect a narrow Senate majority.

"This is offense," says Matt Canter, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The Republicans pretended that they had put this one away, but they have not. The demographics remain extremely difficult for them. It's a tossup race."

With 1.2 million registered voters in Nevada, Democrats enjoy an advantage of 90,000. Berkley represents parts of Las Vegas and Clark County, where almost three-quarters of Nevada's voters live. Heller is from Carson City in the more GOP-leaning northern part of the state.

Andrew Moreno, 71, a casino card dealer and Latino voter who showed up for Romney's latest rally, said he backs Heller because his party "wants to cut taxes" and cited Berkley's ethics investigation

But at the East Las Vegas Community Center, an early-voting place for the largely Latino and black neighborhoods there, Camille Franklin says Obama voters will go with Berkley: "I think she'll do fine."

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012