Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., proved the stronger Senate candidate on Tuesday, defeating Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, according to the Associated Press, by overcoming a slew of forces, including the tide of the presidential race, a superior Democratic ground game, and demographic trends that tilted the state toward his opponent's party.
Heller edged Berkley with strong support in his native Washoe County, which includes Reno. While President Obama won the state, Heller benefited from Mitt Romney’s late decision to fight for it. If Romney had failed to come within single digits of Obama, who won the state by 12 percentage points in 2008, Berkley could have been pulled past Heller on Obama’s coattails.
Heller also may have benefited from Nevada’s geographical divide, contended Robert Lang, a political scientist at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas). Northern Nevadans, who surrendered long-standing political dominance of the state to Las Vegas-area politicians in recent decades, “vote their interests” and do not want to have two southern senators, Lang said.
Berkley's campaign was slowed by a House Ethics Committee investigation into whether she used her position to benefit the financial interests of her husband, who operates dialysis centers in Nevada. Heller worked to raise broader questions about Berkley’s ethics, hitting her with ads questioning her real-estate investments and a trip to Italy. Meanwhile, Berkley attacked Heller throughout the campaign for voting for budget plans offered by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP vice presidential nominee.
Both candidates were well-funded and backed by outside groups, making the race negative from the start. It featured as nasty an air war as any Senate race this year.
Groups backing Heller got crucial help from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has a history of feuding with Berkley.
“There are structural forces; there are all these waves; and then there’s the fact that she had a falling out with the richest guy in the state,” Lang said.
Heller was appointed to the Senate seat in 2011 after Republican John Ensign resigned amid a sex scandal.
Berkley ran a cautious, consultant-driven campaign intended to tether her to Obama, whose push to win the state’s important electoral votes required Heller to persuade Obama voters to split their ballots. “I clearly need the Obama voters to win,” Heller told the Las Vegas Sun before Election Day.
Berkley bet on benefiting from the state Democratic Party's 90,000 edge in registered voters. She also banked on her base in Democratic-leaning Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and the growing Hispanic—and generally Democratic—portion of Nevada’s electorate.
She also had the advantage of a turnout operation honed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his tight 2010 reelection win. Heller’s win is a loss for Reid, who used his large local influence to back Berkley. He stocked her campaign and the state Democratic Party with his former staffers and helped Berkley raise campaign cash.
These advantages boosted Berkley, but they were not enough to overcome what most polls showed was a small Heller edge heading into Tuesday.
Heller won big among Election Day voters. Fifty-six percent of Nevada’s registered voters—about 700,000 people—cast their ballots before Election Day under the state’s early-voting rules, according to the Associated Press.
In victory, Heller bucked a trend. Ticket splitting has become rarer as down-ballot races increasingly track the outcome of presidential races. Heller is the only Republican candidate in a state won by the other party's presidential nominee to defy this trend and the only candidate to win in such a race against a well-funded opponent who did not commit a major error in the race.