- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2012

RENO, Nev. — Democratic operatives in Nevada are pumping voters here to the polls like nickels into a slot machine, and yet their efforts may not be enough for Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Berkley.

The Democratic congresswoman continues to trail Republican Sen. Dean Heller — narrowly but persistently — in most polls. A Rasmussen Reports survey released Thursday found Mr. Heller leading by a margin of 50 percent to 45 percent, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Marist College poll Friday morning put the Republican incumbent’s lead at 48 percent to 45 percent.

Real Clear Politics has him ahead by an average of 3.7 points.

The Berkley campaign benefits from a crackerjack Democratic Party ground game that has already resulted in 23,000 more Democratic than Republican ballots cast in early voting, which began Monday, according to county figures posted by the respected political newsletter Ralston Reports.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 130,000, according to the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office. That differential is one reason President Obama is increasingly favored over Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential race here, although most polls still rate the presidential contest a tossup.

But Pete Ernaut, a veteran Nevada political analyst and president of R&R Partners in Las Vegas, summed up the thoughts of many politicos when he predicted Monday that the state could split for Democrat Obama and Republican Heller.

“If Gov. Romney carries Nevada, without a doubt Heller will win the Senate race,” said Mr. Ernaut on the Oct. 22 edition of the “Nevada Newsmakers” television show. “I don’t think there is a Romney-Berkley voting bloc. But there is clearly an Obama-Heller voting bloc.”

Mr. Heller, a former House member from Carson City appointed to the Senate seat in May 2011 after the resignation of scandal-plagued GOP Sen. John Ensign, has positioned himself as a pragmatic Republican able to get along with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, while painting his Democratic foe as a hard-core partisan who “voted 95 percent of the time with Nancy Pelosi,” as one pro-Heller ad states.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shot back with a commercial that says Mr. Heller voted over 90 percent of the time with Republicans. “He’s really not for you,” says the tagline in anti-Heller ads run by the Berkley camp.

Ethics woes

But Ms. Berkley, now in her seventh House term representing Las Vegas, has been unable to shake the negative publicity resulting from the House Ethics Committee’s decision in July to launch an investigation into her advocacy for a kidney-transplant center. Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, had a contract with the facility.

Shelley Berkley is a flawed candidate with an ethics investigation hanging over her head,” said Eric Herzik, political scientist at the University of Nevada at Reno. “The only way Berkley is carried in with Obama is if we have a wave like we had in 2008. It would have to be a pretty heavy lift to pull Shelley Berkley across the line.”

At the same time, Nevada Republican candidates have been hurt by an intraparty feud that resulted in a takeover of the state and Clark County organizations by loyalists of libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. In defiance of party rules, the state delegation cast 17 of its 28 nominating votes for Mr. Paul at the national convention in August, with five more delegates abstaining.

Supporters of Mr. Romney responded, forming Team Nevada, a Republican get-out-the-vote group operating independently of the state GOP. While the result has been an improved grass-roots game, analysts agree Democrats still have the advantage, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s vaunted organization coupled with the Obama campaign’s ground troops.

Mr. Herzik says he’s already been visited three times at his home in Reno by Democratic volunteers asking if he’s voted yet — and he lives in a Republican-majority precinct.

Fortunately for Mr. Heller, 52, this isn’t his first run for office. Before he was appointed to the Senate in 2011, he served as a state legislator, secretary of state and congressman, allowing him to build his own statewide campaign infrastructure.

Ms. Berkley, 61, has served in Congress for 14 years, but had never run for office outside her Las Vegas district before this year. Introducing herself to north Nevada voters under the cloud of an ethics probe hasn’t been optimal.

In their final Senate debate Oct. 15, Ms. Berkley stressed that when she fought to keep open the transplant center, “my one and only concern was for the health and well-being of the patients in Nevada.”

“They are going through this process; at the end of this process, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind, in spite of the accusations by my opponent, that it will be determined that I did absolutely nothing wrong,” she said.

That Ms. Berkley is still defending herself against accusations of corruption indicates the campaign narrative hasn’t gone her way. “I just think she has too much baggage, and her base is too much in Clark County,” said Mr. Herzik.

The Heller camp may be privately nervous about the Democratic voting edge to date, but analysts note that Nevada voters are known for their independence.

Dean Heller has a great campaign, and he’s really working it,” said Robin Reedy, a principal with RPolitix, a Nevada political-consulting firm. “I think some of those Democrats going in to vote are probably voting for Dean.”

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