Monday, Oct. 15, 2007 | 7:21 a.m.
WASHINGTON - This is what happens when a congressman takes the political temperature.
Last year Republican Rep. Jon Porter proudly allied himself with President Bush. At a summer Rose Garden ceremony Porter stood near the president as Bush signed into law a bill the congressman had helped shape. Earlier that spring the congressman welcomed Bush to Las Vegas to raise money for the congressman's reelection campaign.
When Bush told the Las Vegas donors that he was lucky to have friends like Porter in Congress, he was right: Porter would end up supporting the president's initiatives 93 percent of the time in 2006, according to an annual ranking.
But the November election changed all that, as voter unrest with the Iraq war and Republicans' domestic agenda propelled a Democratic wave across the nation. After being branded in lock step with his party, Porter barely won reelection with less than 50 percent of the vote, his lowest showing since he was first elected in 2002.
Now with no sign of the Democratic momentum receding, Porter is taking corrective action.
Porter became one of the earliest Republicans to break with his party and call on beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign, and has joined dozens of Republicans to support expansion of a popular children's health care program, knowing Bush would veto it.
David Wasserman, who analyzes House races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington and counts Porter among the 15 most vulnerable House Republicans nationwide, said the congressman "is trying to position himself on the 30-yard line of the political spectrum."
The election may be a year away, he said, but to win in 2008 Porter needs to attract as many moderate independents as possible while not foregoing his Republican base.
Porter's office maintains the congressman has always stood in the middle. He started his career two decades ago as a moderate Republican and has never veered from that stance - not during his years in the state Legislature, not during his three terms in Washington.
"Look at the legislation he's rolled out this year. His policy agenda has not changed," Porter spokesman Matt Leffingwell said. Porter has introduced bills to set harsher penalties for cop killers, protect children from abusers, promote tourism in Las Vegas and allow the free market to help build transportation infrastructure.
This session, Porter has won House approval of legislation addressing the zebra mussel infestation in Lake Mead and transferring land for a new National Guard facility in Southern Nevada - what Leffingwell calls "more common-sense, bipartisan legislation that addresses the needs of Nevada."
When Porter first ran for Congress, he presented himself as a congenial lawmaker whose strategy was to reach across the aisle to broker solutions. In the state Senate he was known as a low-key lawmaker, not a bomb-thrower.
In Washington he took a page from the freshman playbook and towed the party line. The Republican Party ran a disciplined operation in the House under then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and a new congressman was expected to not make waves.
During his first year in Congress he sided with the party 94 percent of the time and with Bush's agenda 98 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly, which publishes the annual tallies based on key votes.
In subsequent years Porter's party unity rating never dipped below 83 percent, his support of presidential policies never below 80 percent.
But by the time Porter was up for reelection last fall, Bush's own ratings had tanked and voters had become increasingly frustrated by the Iraq war and the "culture of corruption" in Washington.
Smelling blood, Democrats cast Porter as a close ally of the Bush administration.
Watching the campaign unfold from his office at UNR's political science department, professor Eric Herzik couldn't believe the attacks being lobbed on the mild lawmaker whose career he has followed for years.
"They tried to paint him as this Bush clone, they tried to paint him as this hatchet man like Tom DeLay," Herzik recalled. "I'm sitting there thinking, Jon Porter? You've got to be kidding me."
Porter tried to rewrite the narrative, insisting he had stood up to Bush . He cited his opposition to a proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and his support for stem cell research. Other example s went unsaid, such as his vote to ban torture and limit domestic spying, both of which went against the president's wishes, according to the Congressional Quarterly.
But in the face of a voter revolt, those positions were little match for his unwavering support of the Iraq war and domestic policies that Democrats derided, including tax breaks for the oil and gas industries. But Porter hung on as Republicans lost dozens of seats nationwide last fall in an epochal wave .
Porter's 3rd Congressional District will never be an easy win. It was carved out by a special meeting of the state Legislature in 2001 in what Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston called the "Jon Porter Special Session," a nod to his desire for the seat. The boundaries were drawn to narrowly split the district between Democrats and Republicans - making it always competitive.
But last week the state Democratic Party announced that Porter's district is showing its strongest Democratic trend yet, with 6,000 more Democrats than Republicans now registered .
In January Porter signaled he would cooperate more with Democrats when they took over Congress, and he voted for three of their top six bills in the first 100 hours of their leadership: carrying out the security recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, making college more affordable with grants and loans , and loosening restrictions on stem cell research.
A fourth Democratic bill, raising the minimum wage, won his support the second time it came up for a vote after tax breaks for small businesses were included.
He has since voted with Democrats on six of the annual spending bills that Bush has threatened to veto, as well as on legislation with pro-labor provisions.
A midyear report showed him voting with his own party 73 percent of the time.
Porter's spokesman said the dip in party unity is a result of the Democratic agenda that is coming to the floor: If Republicans were still in charge, Leffingwell said, Porter's score would remain as high as in the past.
On Iraq, still the biggest issue for voters, Porter has not wavered. He returned from a trip to Al Anbar province this summer as steadfast as ever that Bush's surge of extra troops is helping. He believes the military should stay.
Fellow Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller said he has "a tremendous amount of respect for Jon," who he believes is freer to express a moderate streak now that House leadership has given Republicans more leeway.
"I think he is reflecting in his votes the change in his district," Heller said. "As his district becomes more moderate, I think you'll see him vote accordingly."
Last month, as the House was nearing a showdown on the children's health care expansion, Porter refused to say how he would vote. He had opposed the initial bill because it included a provision he believed would harm a Medicare program for 40,000 seniors in his district. But the new bill eliminated that element.
Then with just a few minutes remaining for members to cast votes, Porter pushed the green light.
Party leadership downplayed the dissent. "Jon Porter is with us on many, many important issues," House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said. "He doesn't have to be with us on every issue to be doing the job he needs to do here."
But Kirsten Searer, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, said the vote "was pretty remarkable. I don't know that he's ever said no to the president before."