Of all of the special House elections of this surprisingly busy election cycle, the race in Nevada’s 2nd congressional district appeared to present Republicans with the opportunity for a particularly painful loss.
In May, the district’s incumbent Republican, Dean Heller, became the newest member of the U.S. Senate, following the resignation of incumbent John Ensign. Under its current lines — Nevada is gaining a fourth seat in the current redistricting — the seat should be relatively safe GOP territory. Geographically encompassing almost the entire state outside of Las Vegas — including Reno and the state capital, Carson City — the district may be the single most bizarre district in the country: It includes ghost towns, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site, Yucca Mountain, legal brothels, and Area 51. The non-extraterrestrials in the district make it the most Republican one in the state; it scores an R+5 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Over his three terms, Heller won increasingly easily, earning 63 percent of the vote in 2010. In 2008, John McCain and Barack Obama effectively tied in the district, while Obama won the state’s other districts handily.
But Nevada secretary of state Ross Miller ruled that Heller’s replacement should be selected by a “free-for-all” election, with no party primaries and any person who files a minimal number of signatures permitted to appear on the ballot. With at least four big-name Republicans interested and the possibility of dozens of minor-party candidates’ appearing on the ballot, Democrats saw a golden opportunity to win a messy race.
Miller’s plan is now kaput. On July 5, Nevada’s supreme court affirmed the decision to allow the state party committees to nominate candidates for the special election. With that settled, the Democratic nominee is state treasurer Kate Marshall, and the Republican nominee is former state senator Mark Amodei.
“If you were looking for stability and predictability, this was not your race,” Amodei says with a chuckle. “But the way it’s turned out has been very gratifying, and we’re excited to have clarity for the first time since Senator Ensign’s resignation started a bunch of wheels turning in different directions.”
The result is a much more “normal” race, with the two major-party candidates, a candidate from the American Independent party, and an independent qualified under Nevada law by securing enough signatures. While Republicans in Nevada and Washington are watching the race closely, the two minor parties are not expected to mount significant campaigns, and GOP strategists are breathing a little easier.
“We are extremely pleased with today’s ruling by the Nevada supreme court. The Nevada Republican party chose to fight to preserve and protect the rights of the constituents of Nevada’s 2nd congressional district, and today’s ruling is a victory for us all. The decision handed down today simply affirms our unwavering position and finalizes an answer to our questions with the secretary of state’s unfortunate initial ballot rules,” said Nevada Republican-party chairwoman Amy Tarkanian the day of the ruling, adding that it “moves us one step closer to preserving this important seat, carrying our momentum into 2012, and turning Nevada red again.”
“It’s certainly a Republican-advantaged district,” says political strategist Rob Stutzman, currently helping out the Amodei campaign. “Heller did struggle once in it, Obama ran strong here as he did all throughout Nevada in 2008, and Reid ran pretty strong in this district, but Angle was a disaster by the end of that race. We see this as an opportunity for a Republican to run a solid Republican-base-driven campaign. The issues work well for the Republican base on debt and taxes, and Obama and Reid are both very unpopular in this district right now, and that’s going to be a liability.”
Stutzman notes that Marshall is not terribly well-known in the district, even though she’s been elected to statewide office twice. Some of that can be attributed to the relatively low profile of the state-treasurer position, but he notes that she has never run a particularly strong race.
Can the Democrats turn this special election into another referendum on Medicare? So far, the Amodei campaign feels confident that they’ve kept the debt and taxes issues front and center in the race, although they know that as the September 13 election date nears, outside groups will sponsor television ads that may change the political environment significantly.