HENDERSON, Nev. — The clock has ticked past 5 p.m. on a hot and rainy Friday, but the campaign office of Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., is humming. More than two dozen people are manning the phones for him under a giant American flag.
It may be only July, but one of the most-watched congressional contests is under way.
If Democrats are to take back the House in 2012, or even make major inroads toward doing so, they must succeed in districts like Heck’s: suburbs with a depressed economy and a growing minority population that is still on the rise.
Heck won the 3rd District in 2010 by a razor-thin margin of 0.66 percentage points, one of the closest in the nation. As it has elsewhere, redistricting has made the district more Republican, but it remains a toss-up.
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“What’s happening here is really an intensified [version of] what’s happening in the rest of the country,” said John Oceguera, the Democratic challenger and Nevada Assembly speaker, who is often touted as one of the party’s top recruits. “It’s like a real microcosm.”
National parties and super PACs have already reserved millions of dollars in airtime in Las Vegas, most of it expected to be devoted to this race. But, as in other seats across the country, the candidates’ own missteps and flaws threaten to trump national messaging.
Tall and broad-shouldered, Oceguera, who has some Latino heritage and said he would join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus if elected, still looks like the fireman he once was. At a recent roundtable here, he listened to struggles of local seniors, before inserting the poll-tested line that Heck has voted to “end Medicare as we know it.”
“My opponent and I,” he told them, “have different priorities.”
Like many Democrats, Oceguera talks a lot about Heck’s vote for the budget plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
That Heck once called Social Security a “pyramid scheme”—on video—has emboldened Democrats. In a June special election 400 miles away, the party pilloried Arizona GOP congressional nominee Jesse Kelly in TV ads for calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” Kelly lost.
But Oceguera, 44, has stumbled out of the starting blocks. In 2011, he ranked among the highest-paid public employees in all of Nevada, collecting more than $452,000 in combined pay, pension, and benefits for his work as a lawmaker and retired assistant fire chief, according to TransparentNevada.com.
The city of North Las Vegas, where he worked, recently declared a “fiscal emergency” and his compensation has been in the news. Even at his hand-picked roundtable, one attendee brought up having heard about $400,000 firemen. She didn’t know one was sitting next to her; Oceguera didn’t volunteer the information.
“People aren’t really concerned with what John Oceguera got in his retirement, they’re concerned about getting a job,” she said in an interview after the event. “They’re concerned about how they stay in their house, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Oceguera sells himself as a Democrat who can work with Republicans, citing his work in Carson City with GOP governors, but he struggles when he strays from Democratic talking points. He was broadly panned for a spring TV appearance on Face to Face with Jon Ralston, in which he repeatedly ducked questions such as whether he backed President Obama’s health law. (He later said he’s for it.)
“I’ve yet to hear anything about anything from my opponent,” Heck said.
Heck, a physician, said he too works across the aisle, citing legislation he’s backed to permanently reform how Medicare pays doctors. He called himself a “center-right” Republican.
But the 50-year-old incumbent, trim from his years as an Army reservist, has had early political missteps as well. Beyond the “pyramid scheme” remark—which Heck did not back down from in an interview, saying “it doesn’t make a difference what term is used to describe a program” if you want to mend it—he has been in the news for his wife collecting unemployment benefits. She had worked for his medical company, which he closed after his election. Heck bristled at Democrats’ politicizing the matter. “If they want to stoop to the level of attacking my wife, that shows how desperate they are,” he said.
In his first term, Heck has focused heavily on helping constituents. It is a subtle way to leverage his incumbency. His office said it has closed 558 constituent housing cases since January 2011, though that doesn’t mean all those people in foreclosure-riddled Nevada kept their homes. His staff have put together job fairs for the unemployed, helped with their resumes, and even conducted mock interviews to help constituents.
“The most important thing for me to win the opportunity to go back to Washington, D.C., is just to do my job well,” Heck said.
Democrats say there is nothing subtle about Heck’s listing by Roll Call as the No. 1 user, between April 2011 and April 2012, of the “franking” privilege—sending taxpayer-paid mailers. He had criticized his predecessor for the practice but insists his aren’t “glossy what-have-I-done-for-you-lately-mailers,” but letters about legislation and job fairs.
Combined, Oceguera said the franking and unemployment issues speak to Heck’s willingness to put his interests above those of taxpayers. “It’s a pattern,” he said. Heck has outpaced Oceguera in fundraising so far, and at the end of June had $1.28 million in the bank to Oceguera’s $624,000.
Heading into the fall, most Nevada political observers say Heck has the advantage. Unseating an incumbent is hard, and Oceguera has suffered self-inflicted wounds. But in a presidential swing state—where a tight Senate race is also driving turnout—both candidates’ fates may turn on who tops the ticket, no matter how many phone calls Heck’s volunteers make in July.
“Ultimately,” predicted Billy Vassiliadis, a prominent Nevada Democrat, “it’s going to pivot on the presidential election.”
This story is part of a series, The National Journal Big 10, focusing on important and representative House and Senate races. The composition of the Big 10 may change as circumstances warrant.