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.
Amodei is running a dramatic Web and television ad (running sporadically in the Reno market), featuring a fictional futuristic Chinese newscast in which the anchor cheerfully describes how debt and borrowing led to American subservience to a new Chinese empire. “Once upon a time, America became its own worst enemy,” says an English-language voiceover with a Chinese accent. “When all their borrowed money ran out, they kept spending out of control. Their President Obama just kept raising the debt limit — and their independence became a new dependence. As their debt grew, our fortune grew — and that is how our great empire rose again.” Amodei appears at the end of the ad, declaring in a gravelly voice, “It’s not too late to stop this nightmare.” (The ad emulates a commercial from Citizens Against Government Waste, which featured a Chinese professor in the year 2030, explaining how runaway spending and government growth put America in crippling debt to China and “now they work for us.”)
“We wanted to be provocative in terms of focusing on spending and the deficit and the consequences of this debt,” Amodei says. “While a lot of folks on the left side thought it was trying to manufacture some sort of international or race-based concern, the phobia we encountered early on was their phobia about even discussing this issue. If you listen to the newscast, there’s nothing critical about the Chinese there. The Chinese are acting in their own self-interest, and you should expect them to do that. The criticism in the ad is with our own spending and our own debt policies.”
Beyond the focus on the debt, a Republican countermove on the Medicare attacks that could be replicated nationally may be taking shape.
“We think Medicare can be fought in this district at least to a draw,” Stutzman says. “Marshall has her own liabilities, considering her support for Obamacare,” which cut Medicare parts A and B by trillions over the next 20 years, “and her close ties to Reid and Obama. Amodei has a strong record for continuing to support efforts to preserve and protect Medicare. I think in New York, the issue got away from them in a way that isn’t going to happen here.”
“I think that people who are in the Medicare or Social Security system, or close to the system, don’t want somebody to change the rules on them, and our job is to let them know that we won’t,” Amodei says. “We’re going to talk about some of the aspects of the Ryan plan and some of the realities of the budget.”
However, this is the first special U.S. House election in Nevada history, so projecting turnout is trickier than normal.
“It’s not a primary, it’s not a general, so the question is, ‘Who’s going to show up to vote?’” Amodei says. “We’ve given this a lot of analysis. Turnout’s probably going to be a little higher than you might expect; that’s a function of the economic reality in Nevada, people are paying much closer attention. We think turnout is going to be somewhere around 40 percent. . . . One of the problems for Republicans over the last few cycles in Nevada has been to identify and turn out their vote, so we’ve been very focused on that, working with the state party, county parties, and congressional-committee folks. We think we have a pretty sharp focus on ID and turnout, precinct prioritization, all of that blocking and tackling stuff that sometimes people forget.”
The unique character of the district will also be a factor. Amodei’s campaign promises that the candidate will spend a lot of time in his truck driving around the district, touting his familiarity with local concerns.
“I grew up in the district, served as a state legislator for 14 years in the district, and am familiar with the issues, whether it’s in Pahrump about groundwater, in Elko regarding mining, or Truckee Meadows regarding air quality or transportation,” Amodei says.
“There are unique challenges, as the district is basically the entire state outside of Las Vegas,” Stutzman says. “There are rural communities where it’s going to be very important for us to turn out the vote. But they’ve seen him before because they know him. There are votes for us in these rural parts of the district.” In the end, however, the race is likely to come down to the Reno metro area.
Early voting begins at the end of August. With the state enduring hard times and an epic housing collapse for the past three years, and having been a highly contested swing state for the past two presidential cycles and perhaps the most hard-fought Senate race of the 2010 cycle, Nevada voters are much more engaged than normal. The special election will offer a fascinating glimpse of both parties’ level of competitiveness heading into 2012.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on NRO.