Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Dina Titus, having easily clinched the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Rep. Jon Porter, made her way through a throng of clapping supporters to the stage of a Henderson union hall Tuesday night.
Crushed by media and blinded by flashbulbs, the Democratic state senator seemed to be startled by it all. Her moment had arrived.
Two years ago Titus played the outsider in her failed bid for governor, watching the party establishment back her primary opponent, Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, whom she in turn eviscerated — with glee. But her loss that November shook her faith in state politics, inflicting a bad hangover that carried into last year’s legislative session.
But if Tuesday night was any indication, the bitterness is gone.
Titus enters the general election with the full backing of the state and national parties. An early poll showed the two candidates in a statistical tie, and in some state political circles Titus is considered the favorite against the three-term incumbent, if only for the district’s heavy Democratic voter edge. In 2006, Porter eked out a win over challenger Tessa Hafen when voter registration was evenly split.
In a speech to supporters Wednesday, Porter said he’s ready for the challenge. “I’m accustomed to being a target,” he said. “And you’ve been with me before when I’ve been told I can’t win.”
Titus outlined the theme of her campaign Tuesday night: change.
“I am running to offer a vision for our future that breaks with the failed policies of the last eight years that have resulted in higher gas prices, a war with no end in Iraq and a stalled economy that is leaving Nevada’s families behind,” she said.
Titus favors an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, and says she will work to lower gas prices and foster renewable energy.
She threw a few barbs at Porter for his support of the war and tax subsidies for oil companies. But unlike some of her jabs during the gubernatorial campaign, they were based on issues and delivered with restraint. She played up her 20-year career in the state Senate, focusing on her work to protect Red Rock Canyon from development and her efforts to pass a sexual predator law in Nevada. She also highlighted her sponsorship of the Children’s Health Insurance Program here and her support for renewable energy tax incentives.
Titus can count on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to play the role of attack dog. The Associated Press reported last month that the committee has reserved $916,000 worth of TV advertising time for the race. (She will also get help from her new communications director, Andrew Stoddard, who’s on loan from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.)
By contrast, Porter is getting little help from national Republicans, who are focusing all of their resources on electing John McCain president and limiting losses in the Senate. (The National Republican Congressional Committee did, however, send out an e-mail after Tuesday’s results reprising the nickname Gov. Jim Gibbons gave Titus in 2006: Dina “Taxes.” It mentions her “long history of voting for countless tax increases.”)
Nevertheless, Porter had more than $1.2 million in cash on hand, about double Titus’ $590,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports. That could help supplement efforts by the Nevada Republican Party, which lags behind state Democrats in building an organizational machine.
Steve Wark, a Republican consultant and longtime field operative, said Porter’s campaign must “think outside the box and dig deeper to find support.” Porter retains some key figures behind his 2006 campaign, including Matt McCullough, who ran his field program.
His supporters also say his crossover appeal shouldn’t be underestimated. In 2004, Porter won by 14 points while President Bush captured half of the ballots cast in the district.
On Wednesday, Porter launched his campaign at Nevada State College in Henderson, portraying himself as a bipartisan problem solver who has played a critical role on important state issues, including drought, education, health care and energy. He worked to secure federal funding for the college and its nursing program.
He emphasized his work in Congress on legislation that requires background checks for teachers and provides incentives for doctors to digitize medical records and prescriptions. He dug into his past to talk about his support, as Boulder City mayor, for a solar farm, now the third-largest facility of its kind.
Porter vowed to find solutions to the country’s energy and economic crises.
Both candidates agree on the campaign’s top issue: energy.
Porter and Titus support offshore oil drilling, with both saying any oil extracted must be used domestically. Titus adds the caveat that the ultimate decision to drill lies with individual states. For his part, Porter returned to Washington this month — in the midst of the recess — to protest congressional inaction on gas prices. “I think that Congress ought to be in session today,” Porter told supporters Wednesday to big applause. “And not on a book tour around the country. Nancy Pelosi sent us on vacation.”
Porter also blamed the Democratic Congress for “the largest tax increase in the history of America,” citing the $3 trillion, Democrat-backed spending plan approved by the Senate in June. The plan increased spending on domestic programs such as education, health care, veterans’ benefits and new energy technology while allowing some of the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans to expire.
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Porter made clear he would extend that line of attack to Titus, whom he painted as a tax-and-spend Democrat in the Legislature.
Titus counters that as Senate minority leader, she supported capping property taxes. She also points out that Nevada has one of the lowest tax burdens in the country.
And in a reprise of his two previous campaigns, Porter raised the issue of Titus’ residency. She lives two blocks outside the district but much of her state Senate district is part of it. In 2004 and 2006 Porter, labeled his challengers carpetbaggers, an attack seen as disingenuous two years ago when it was launched against Tessa Hafen, whose family has deep Nevada roots. She had lived in Washington to work as a press aide to Sen. Harry Reid.
“This campaign is about the future,” Porter said Wednesday.
As both candidates enter the stretch run of the race, it’s clear Nevada voters are going to be spending quite a bit of time hearing about the past.