Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Three weeks before Election Day, the candidates vying for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District seat are playing against type, trying to change the dynamic in one of the most competitive races in the country at a time of extraordinary economic unease.
Republican Rep. Jon Porter, a three-term incumbent, used a debate with Democrat Dina Titus on Wednesday to portray himself as a leader in a time of crisis, highlighting his support for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill that most of his party members — and Titus — initially opposed last month.
After a close call in the 2006 election, which he won by fewer than 4,000 votes, Porter has steadily distanced himself from the Bush administration. On Wednesday he ran against it outright, saying the administration “dropped the ball” on the economy.
“I can’t imagine the administration didn’t see this coming,” he said. He said lenders that “abused families” with predatory loans should go to jail.
Titus, a sharp-witted state senator accustomed to playing offense, was forced on the defensive on the bailout. She explained her opposition by saying the initial plan was “too quick and too risky” and lacked oversight and accountability measures.
She went on to tie Porter to Bush and painted the congressman as a servant of special interests. She said Porter had run a mostly negative campaign and billed him as a practitioner of “old, Karl Rove politics” that sours voters on government.
Titus hopes Porter’s attack politics will backfire, much as they seem to have against Sen. John McCain.
By some measures, the wind is at Titus’ back. The district was essentially split between the parties two years ago, but Democrats now outnumber Republicans by nearly 31,000 voters. A New York Times/CBS News poll this week found that the public favors Democrats on the top issues in the election, including the economy.
The bailout, however, gives Porter an opening. On Wednesday, he called his vote a generational vote and the economic crisis a situation requiring solid leadership and immediate action. He labeled Titus a “flip-flopper” because she supported the second version of the bill, which passed.
Titus said she ultimately supported the bailout package, reluctantly, because it included provisions that help Nevada, including tax credits for renewable energy and sales tax deductions for state residents. If elected, she said she would revisit the situation.
“What we need to do is look back at regulation,” Titus said. “We need to create an economic system that’s not like a house of cards, put fire walls in place that used to exist after the Great Depression, so when one falls every other one does not fall.”
Titus also cast Porter as a flip-flopper, citing a half-dozen bills on which he has changed his vote, including one that expanded the federal health program for uninsured children last year. By contrast, she highlighted her own bill in the Nevada Senate that created Nevada Check-up, a state program for uninsured children. Porter ultimately voted to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program but said he voted against the first draft of the bill because it would have cut benefits for 45,000 seniors in the district and 100,000 seniors statewide.
Titus hit Porter for supporting the administration’s plan to privatize Social Security, saying such a plan would have resulted in disaster for seniors in the current economic climate. “He’s part of the problem, not the solution,” Titus said.
Porter said he opposed privatization then — and still does. He has, however, supported investing a portion of Social Security payroll taxes in some form of personal account, which amounts to partial privatization of the program.
The two candidates also sparred over energy. Both support offshore drilling, but Porter has highlighted Titus’ opposition to a state Senate resolution last year that called on President Bush to lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling.
Titus offered an amendment to the resolution, stripping drilling language in favor of incentives for renewable energy. The amendment failed and Titus voted against the resolution.
“You need to make some tough decisions and make up your mind,” Porter said.
Titus argued that she has consistently supported drilling but that her action on the state Senate resolution was intended to promote “what benefits Nevada.” She criticized Porter for accepting major contributions from Big Oil while voting to award oil companies billions of dollars in tax breaks.
Porter defended his votes, saying the tax incentives were directed at building the first American refinery in three decades. He also noted that he has supported tax credits for renewable energy.
The candidates closed the debate arguing over the negative tone of the campaign. The moderators, Sun columnist Jon Ralston and Channel 8 reporter George Knapp, focused on an ad being run by Porter that accuses Titus of raising taxes to pay for “shady schemes.” Asked to explain, Porter reached back 20 years to Titus’ support for raising state legislators’ pensions by 300 percent. She was a freshman legislator at the time and said Wednesday that she would not have been eligible for 10 years. In the end, after public outcry, the Legislature convened a special session to repeal the measure.
Titus said Porter had changed from his time as a state senator. “What happened to the Jon Porter I used to know?” she said. “He has chosen to distort my record.” Later, she addressed Porter directly: “You want to blame everyone else in Congress for the mess we’re in, but you’ve been there.”
Porter repeated that the race was about “leadership and making tough decisions,” which he said Titus had failed to do.