Why Nevada’s upcoming special election is worth watching

Liz Mair President, Mair Strategies LLC
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Last Saturday, the Nevada Democratic Party’s Central Committee selected State Treasurer Kate Marshall to be the Democratic candidate in the upcoming special election to replace now-Sen. Dean Heller in the House of Representatives.

Marshall won the near-universal support of those voting, a testament to the strong backing from influential party members with which she enters the race. However, the most powerful individual behind Marshall in her fight to take Nevada’s Second District appears to be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

As of Saturday, Reid — whose 2010 campaign earned high praise for smart and early organizing that guaranteed former opponent Sharron Angle a much tougher fight than many expected or even observed during the campaign itself — had reportedly already helped Marshall raise close to $100,000.

More money will likely follow. Per Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College quoted by the Reno Gazette-Journal, “What Harry Reid has repeatedly demonstrated is that he has juice. Not only can he raise a phenomenal amount of money for his own campaign, his star power also brings those types of contributions to the people he endorses.”

But the Reid factor is just one of two reasons that the special election, which is slated for September 13, is worth watching.

The second is the lack of clarity surrounding who the contenders in the race will be.

A week before Democrats nominated Marshall, Republicans nominated former state senator and state party chairman Mark Amodei. Provided that Nevada’s Supreme Court signs off on the method of selection used in both cases, the race is set. If, however, the Court allows other candidates to be included on the ballot, the race could be somewhat messy. Former USS Cole Commander Kirk Lippold wants to run and has some prominent supporters, including former Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich, who represented the district from 1983 to 1997. However, according to some involved with the race, Republicans’ desire to beat Reid by proxy is motivating them to unite and get moving.

Amodei, for his part, has come out swinging.

As of Saturday, his campaign had brought in about two-thirds as much cash as Marshall’s.

Following his nomination, Amodei released an ad that might politely be described as “attention-grabbing” (though others have used spicier terminology) focused on the issue of the national debt. Amodei’s campaign concedes it’s “provocative.” However, they also clearly see the issue of the national debt — and the debt limit — as a major concern in the district, as it is nationally. According to Amodei consultant Rob Stutzman, “We see the debt limit as a very timely and important issue, particularly for the voters of Nevada … Mark was anxious to set the agenda for what this race is about.” So, too, is the National Republican Congressional Committee, it seems: On Wednesday, the NRCC released a Web ad focused on the national debt entitled “Kate Marshall’s Chinese Credit Card.”

Marshall, for her part, has been arguing that the race is about many of the usual catch-phrases popular with Democratic candidates running in Republican districts while seeking not to offend. To summarize a fundraising email, her goals are to stand for working families, create jobs, control runaway spending and make government perform for Nevadans, not for special interests. But observers of the race say Marshall is already veering far to the right in an effort to appear more conservative than she really is. One individual watching the race closely characterized Marshall as in truth more Hillary Clinton than Heath Schuler.

While benefiting from Reid’s support, Marshall also seems to simultaneously be seeking to distance herself from him, and from President Obama. In a statement to the Gazette-Journal, Marshall said “Sen. Reid is supporting me, and I greatly appreciate that. But this is about one person and one vote, and I will need every vote to win this race.” Marshall has also been critical of the Democrats’ health care reform law, noting that Obamacare has not proven effective in bringing down health care costs, and she has signaled that President Obama has not done enough to create jobs.

A dive into statistics relevant to the district indicates why Marshall is positioning herself as something of a conservative, Blue Dog Democrat. As of January 2011, NV-2 had close to 180,000 registered Republicans, about 150,000 registered Democrats and — perhaps critically — about 20,000 conservative, registered Independent American Party voters. That combines to give Republicans an advantage. In 2006 — a bloodbath year for Republicans, who sustained losses elsewhere across the West — Heller beat his Democratic opponent by five points. Despite Reid beating Angle by five points across the state in 2010, he did not beat her in the district (nor did Obama beat Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain).

That may explain why, despite Democrats’ recent track record of besting Republicans in special elections, they are not getting carried away with optimism quite yet. As Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, and himself a registered Republican, says: “I keep coming back to the numbers. It is such a daunting task for a Democrat.”

But, as one operative put it, special elections — even in R+5 districts like this one — should not be treated as “gimmes,” and turnout will be key. Watch for plenty of money to be plowed into this race to get voters on both sides to the polls on a day when “election” is not likely to be the first thing on many people’s minds.

Liz Mair is a political consultant focusing on communications and new media. During 2008, she served as the Republican National Committee’s Online Communications Director. Her clients include several Fortune 500 companies and major trade associations; she previously consulted for California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC.