- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2011

While the Republicans’ surprising win in New York’s 9th Congressional District race drew most of the attention, it was the GOP’s second victory on Sept. 13 that could have even bigger ramifications for President Obama’s re-election bid.

In Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District special election, Republican former state Sen. Mark Amodei trounced Democratic state Treasurer Kate Marshall 58 percent to 36 percent.

On top of that ballot-box disappointment, Nevada Democrats are looking at a new poll that shows their likely 2012 Senate candidate, Rep. Shelley Berkley, running six points — 48 percent to 42 percent — behind newly minted Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican.

Worse yet for Democrats, Mr. Heller leads 2-to-1 among independents, according to the Retailers Association poll.

All that has some Nevada Democrats worried they may be holding a losing hand in 2012.

One reason: Mr. Obama’s approval rating in Nevada has sunk to between the high 30s to low 40s, and the state’s unemployment rate sits at 13.4 percent, worst in the nation.

Another reason: Mrs. Berkley has come under scrutiny for her advocacy on behalf of a Las Vegas kidney-transplant center, an action that benefits the financial interests of her husband, a physician and kidney specialist.

Mrs. Berkley, 60, denies any conflict. Even so, the issue has the campaign on the defensive just as Mrs. Berkley is trying to define herself to voters.

“I don’t think Berkley has handled it very well. I think it’s going to dog her for a few months until she gets her response down,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno. “She needs to get her message out without any distractions, and the transplant center is a distraction.”

Democrats have held the better cards in recent election cycles.

Mr. Obama won the state with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid overcame a huge disapproval rating to squeak out a win in 2010 over Republican former state lawmaker Sharron Angle.

But Nevada is also the consummate swing state, backing the winner in every presidential race since 1912, with the exception of 1976. Even as voters re-elected Mr. Reid, they installed Republican Brian Sandoval in the governor’s mansion.

That proved pivotal for Republicans this year when Sen John Ensign resigned amid a sex scandal, allowing Mr. Sandoval to replace him with two-term congressman Mr. Heller — giving Republicans the advantages of incumbency in what is expected to be another hard-fought Senate contest.

A poll taken in June for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed Mrs. Berkley leading 42 percent to 37 percent. But that was before the New York Times ran a story Sept. 5 detailing her efforts on behalf of federal funding for kidney care.

Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, has the only federally funded contract to provide kidney-transplant services at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, worth $738,000 per year according to the Las Vegas Sun. He also helps run the Renal Physicians Association, a group that has contributed to Mrs. Berkley’s past campaigns.

The disclosure prompted Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a political watchdog group, to ding Mrs. Berkley with a “dishonorable mention” on its list of the most corrupt members of Congress, saying that “the line between political cause and personal gain is fuzzy” for her.

The Nevada Republican Party piled on by filing an ethics complaint Wednesday with the Office of Congressional Ethics, contending that Mrs. Berkley used her position to “enrich herself” by promoting her husband’s business interests.

“Nevadans deserve to know the truth,” Nevada Republican Party chairwoman Amy Tarkanian said in a statement Wednesday. “Why did Shelley Berkley fail to disclose this blatant conflict of interest … ?”

Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party, called the complaint “blatantly political.” The party swung back by accusing Mr. Heller, 51, of having his own ethical lapse, citing his vote against ending oil-company subsidies. British Petroleum hosted a fundraiser for him.

Unlike Mrs. Berkley, Mr. Heller does not have a family member benefiting from his vote.

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