Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nevada U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Nevada U.S. Senate

August 21, 2012
77 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Leans Republican

Six years ago, Republican John Ensign easily won what was supposed to be a difficult race and was elected to a second term in the United States Senate. A member of the Senate GOP leadership, he was considered a rising political star and a likely 2012 Presidential contender.

That all changed in the summer of 2009 though as it was revealed that the married Ensign had carried on an extramarital affair with the wife of a top aide. Allegations of Ensign and those close to him providing favors and money to the woman and her husband became part of the story and the FBI became involved in an investigation. While the legal matters were eventually dropped, this bombshell of a story greatly hurt a publicly contrite Ensign both on Capitol Hill and and back home in Nevada. He initially said he would weather the storm and seek reelection, but with the heat from a Senate investigation on him in 2011 he announced he would not run again, and shortly thereafter resigned his Senate seat entirely.

Throughout the time it looked like Ensign would stubbornly hang on, Democrats believed they had a prime pickup opportunity in a competitive state, especially one where Republicans had been so bitterly disappointed in failing to win a Senate seat they they thought was there for the taking in 2010. Ensign not seeking reelection made Republicans breathe easier, though they were still likely to face a tough race, and his resigning, which allowed the state's new Republican Governor to appoint a replacement was even better news.

While already a likely 2012 candidate, Congressman Dean Heller was given a new job and the power of incumbency when he joined the Senate in May of last year. Having won three terms from his Congressional district, Heller also had previously won three statewide races as Nevada's Secretary of State.

Before Ensign was out of the picture, Democrats had pinned their hopes on another U.S. House member; Shelley Berkley who was first elected in 1998. Both Heller and Berkley easily won their party's primaries in June and advanced to what was looked at as close and highly anticipated general election.

The two candidates offer quite a contrast. While Berkley is a New York City-born Jewish liberal woman, with a bit of a penchant for plastic surgery, who seems to be on par with the flashy reputation of her hometown of Las Vegas, Heller is a conservative, far more stolid Mormon who has lived almost all his life in the more old-school remote Nevada capital of Carson City.

With Berkley expected to be solid in the heavily Democrat and unionized city of Las Vegas, and with Heller expected to do quite well in the conservative, more sparsely populated rural parts of Nevada, it makes sense that this race, like all close ones in Nevada will be decided in the highly growing Clark County suburbs and exurbs, in the Vegas orbit, as well as the city of Reno. Nevada's struggling economy and high unemployment are a major wildcard in the race, as that could seemingly harm the party of the incumbent President in this election year. Still, Barack Obama is considered at least a slight favorite for once again winning Nevada's electoral votes. The state has many Mormon voters though who could possibly be undersampled in some polls, and might be highly motivated to vote for Mitt Romney at Dean Heller, two of their own, at the top of the ticket.

Not long ago, this race was considered a true tossup. By virtue of being such a familiar figure in Las Vegas media for a long period of time, Berkley was perhaps better known statewide than the appointed incumbent Heller, despite the fact that he was also a Congressman and served in statewide office. Heller seemingly made the most of his new role as his state's junior Senator and increased his name recognition as he prepared to seek a full term. Polls from earlier in 2012 started showing Heller with at least a few points of an advantage, but nothing indicating that he could breathe easily against a well-funded opponent who would have much help from the unions and other entities.

The overall trajectory of the race may have changed a good deal though last month when a House Ethics Committee was formed on Capitol Hill to investigate Berkley for allegations that she had used her position and influence as a Congresswoman to benefit her family financially, specifically as it related to her husband's medical practice

Berkley is denying any wrongdoing but it is certainly not helpful to have a U.S. Senate nominee in a tough race under an active ethics investigation. The most recent polls now show Heller ahead by a larger margin, and potentially already above the 50 percent mark. Even most Democrat insiders are likely to now concede that it will be very difficult for Berkley to recover in time.

The 2012 Senate contest was expected to be just as much of a battle as the infamous Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle race there two years earlier, but this time, the Republican incumbent is the one with the edge over a female opponent, whose public style is likely enough to turn off a large segment of the state's voters. It is also true that Heller is a good deal more popular in the state than Reid was, making it easier for him to not have to rely on an opponent's unpopularity alone. All things considered, the race cannot be considered over yet, but when all is said and done, the current Senator could wind up winning by a far larger margin than anyone expected at the beginning.

Dean Heller got a head start on this race and his Senate career by virtue of an ethics scandal and he may very well get another six years in Washington due to another one.

Heller campaign link:


2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 9 D, 8 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 39 D, 45 R