Mere months removed from a Senate race that took over the Silver State, Nevada voters are about to get a second helping: Both parties are on the verge of recruiting A-list candidates for 2012 who can raise the money necessary to run robust campaigns appealing to one of the most up-for-grabs electorates in the nation.
The funny thing is, neither side has bothered to tell GOP incumbent Sen. John Ensign he’s not one of those candidates. Republicans won’t say so publicly, but if Ensign secures the nomination, the seat would almost assuredly flip to the Democrats.
Still, the GOP’s frustration that Ensign remains in the race is palpable. Asked about the primary this week, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas was strikingly non-committal.
“The NRSC Chairman is selected by the Republican Conference, and I work with the Republican Conference, meaning all the incumbents,” Cornyn said. “I would say I learned some important lessons the last cycle, and the most important lesson is the nominee will be chosen by the primary voters in Nevada and nobody else. And so we’ll await their judgment.”
After an affair and the ensuing scandal damaged Ensign’s credibility, the message is clear: Republicans don’t want Ensign to seek another term, and, in any case, Democrats don’t believe he will survive a primary. (Jon Ralston, Nevada’s top political analyst, frequently titles his columns: “John Ensign is dead, one in an occasional series.”)
Democrats are waiting for a decision from Rep. Shelley Berkley. She recently spent three days in Reno, far from her Las Vegas district, to canvass potential supporters, and she already has a return trip planned. Her campaign is conducting polling and focus groups. She would be Democrats’ preferred candidate, but national party leaders will also talk with Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.
Republicans, meanwhile, believe Rep. Dean Heller will run. A survey conducted for Heller’s campaign in January that showed him far ahead of Ensign was leaked this week, a move interpreted by top Republican strategists as evidence Heller has made up his mind to run.
Neither Berkley nor Heller are officially in. But candidates who make it this far in the process—polling and traveling—rarely pass on making it official.
In an interview, Berkley said that she is considering the contest, but loves her job representing Las Vegas, and it will take a period of due diligence to convince her to give up her seat for a Senate bid.
“It’s going to take a few more months. I’m not going to rush into this, and nobody, quite frankly, is pushing me to make a decision. I think people are waiting on me to make a decision before they decide what to do,” she said. “But once I make the decision, I’m either all in and running as if my life depended on it, or I take a step back and just bloom where I’m planted. Either way, I’m very comfortable with the ultimate decision.”
After the poll was released, Heller’s team offered only a two-sentence statement to the media: “I am taking a serious look at the race for U.S. Senate. I will announce my decision in the very near future.”
Democrats should be bullish about a matchup between the two. After all, they have a blueprint of how to win the state, offered up by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid began his own reelection bid with dismal approval ratings, ran a textbook campaign, defined his opponent early, and controlled the race throughout. And Berkley, who first volunteered on Reid’s 1968 state assembly race, was taking notes.
“I believe there will be textbooks written about his strategy and the way he ran and won that race, because it was nothing short of spectacular,” she said. “I think I would be starting this race in a little better position than Harry did a couple of years ago. I’m not sure anyone could have less positive numbers, and yet he managed to pull that off.”
Reid was able to exploit his opponent’s weakness with Hispanics, a key bloc.
Nationally, Hispanics favored Democrats 60 percent to 38 percent, according to exit polls. In Nevada, Reid increased Democratic performance among Hispanics by 9 points. In 2012, President Obama’s turnout machine will be cranking, and Hispanics and blacks will make up a much larger proportion of the electorate than they did during Reid’s race.
Yet all is not lost for Republicans. Reid performed so well among Hispanics, party strategists point out, because he was running against perhaps the weakest candidate Republicans could have nominated. Head to head, Heller performed better than Sharron Angle in Heller’s district; in Washoe County, Heller won 17,000 more votes than Angle did, outperforming her by 14 points.
What’s more, Heller has a statewide platform, having served as secretary of state. Internal surveys conducted for both Democrats and Republicans show his name identification is low, but he has $814,000 in the bank, a good start for a race that will cost tens of millions. And while Heller will find it hard to match Angle’s fundraising, Berkley won’t start with Reid’s money either, giving Heller the chance to do what Angle never could—control the race.
Whether Ensign stays in the race is almost irrelevant to both parties. If he stays, he loses to Heller. If he drops out, it will have little discernable impact. That gives Nevada its second chance in two years to host a premier Senate matchup, one that neither party can count on, and in which both must invest.
This article appears in the Feb. 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.