Sunday, July 13, 2008 | 2:02 a.m.
As Democrats here gush about their ever-widening registration advantage, the chances for Barack Obama to win the state and Dina Titus’ opportunity to erase Jon Porter from Congress, the conventional wisdom on the party’s ability to take control of the state Senate has been less sanguine and very simple: It is virtually nil.
The only two races that really matter in the Democrats’ quest to overturn a one-vote deficit in the state Senate and control the Legislature are challenges to Bob Beers and Joe Heck. Both Republicans are eager and intense campaigners who enjoy the hurly-burly of a good policy debate as well as a feisty meet-and-greet. They also are half-million-dollar men running against a couple of women, Allison Copening and Shirley Breeden, who have been portrayed so far as dilettantes with little knowledge of issues.
This has to have been distressing for Democrats who are far from blue about Nevada’s going blue and who have high hopes up and down the ticket. Their short-term consternation is mild compared with that of the forward-thinking strategists in the party who understand that Beers and Heck are potentially strong statewide candidates in 2010 for governor or U.S. Senate. Beers and Heck, the feeling is, must be stopped now.
And, it turns out, perhaps they can be. Perhaps — and you know how pundits hate this — the conventional wisdom could be wrong.
In a poll taken late last month by a company specializing in delivering legislative majorities for Democrats and paid for by a partisan group, both Heck and Beers appeared vulnerable. Before any of my Republican friends start bleating about the polls’ provenance indicating the numbers are skewed, stop before you e-mail or call.
I have seen the surveys conducted by Myers Research of 400 voters in each district (margin of error is 4.4 percent) and the surveys are legitimate. That doesn’t mean they are predictors of November outcomes — cue the cliches about polls’ being only snapshots — but they should cause folks to rethink the conventional wisdom.
In Heck’s district the poll found the incumbent leads Breeden by only 5 percentage points, 35-30; Beers fared slightly better in his district, leading Copening by 8 percentage points, 46-38.
So, according to the surveys, both races are competitive.
There are other data to consider, too.
The surveys bear out conventional wisdom that says the GOP brand is toxic this year. In generic partisan ballot tests in both districts, a hypothetical Democratic state Senate candidate has an edge just outside the margin of error. Both districts, once solidly Republican, are now very close in registration — Beers has a 600-voter deficit and Heck has 2,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
I am not sure that generic ballot tests ever reveal much. But what often is instructive are past results in the district, especially recent ones. So when I see that gubernatorial contender Dina Titus defeated the eventual winner, Jim Gibbons, by two percentage points in both of those districts — at a time when both were solidly GOP in registration — that has to be reason for concern by the incumbents. Or at least it should be, especially for Heck, considering that Titus has the potential to increase Democratic turnout in that state Senate district as she tries to unseat Porter.
What this poll really reinforces, too, is how little legislators are known by those they represent. I’d venture to guess most people reading these words could not identify their state senator and assemblyman. And the poll showed that even the ever-quoted Beers is not recognized by about a fourth of voters in his district while Heck is known by just more than half.
That presents an opportunity for Copening and Breeden. If, that is.
If they can get the money to compete. If they can prove to be credible candidates. If they can run effective campaigns. And, of course, the determining factor: if they can fare well in debates on “Face to Face.”
Both Democrats surely will be aided by third-party groups pouring money into these districts because of fears about the future. Sen. Harry Reid doesn’t want to face either of these guys in 2010, and neither does anyone running for governor.
Being a stubborn, arrogant pundit who likes to think he helps set the conventional wisdom, I have to think Beers and Heck remain the favorites. But if this year turns out to be an unconventional one, with a Democratic presidential nominee taking this traditionally red state and a GOP congressman with a knack for winning losing his mojo, Heck and Beers may find themselves drowned by the partisan tide.