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December 18, 2014

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Why Porter might just ride out a perfect Democratic storm

Jon Porter should be done, cooked, finis.

He’s a Republican congressman in a district that has metamorphosed from dead even in registration two years ago to a district with 40,000 more Democrats than Republicans. In the year of the Democratic wave, he should be history.

And yet, anecdotal and empirical data indicate, he is still alive in his bid against state Sen. Dina Titus for a fourth term. And because of a remarkable confluence of events, Porter may survive again, perhaps finding enough political sandbags to offset the possible tsunami.

All of the factors allowing Porter to potentially avoid getting swept away by the perfect Democratic storm were on display during Thursday night’s debate on KLVX-TV, Channel 10.

Porter is an astonishing candidate — he has a preternatural equanimity and message discipline matched only by the remarkable contrast between his benign, earnest public persona and a conscienceless, cutthroat approach to campaigning. The congressman smiled calmly all the way to a third term in 2006 as he insidiously and dishonestly labeled Tessa Hafen, a Henderson native, a carpetbagger.

Titus invoked Porter’s “win at any cost” tactics during the debate, but her campaign has shown an inability to react with alacrity to some of Porter’s over-the-top stuff, thus putting her challenge in jeopardy, Democratic insiders believe.

The seminal moment of the debate came several segments after Titus opened with a statement that included her supposed difference with Porter on “health insurance for children.” Porter, as he had in a previous debate, seized on the so-called SCHIP program to create some painfully awkward moments for Titus.

Porter voted against the program, saying it would have cut the Medicare coverage of 110,000 seniors because of a funding mechanism, and then switched on a subsequent vote when the provision was stripped. But his flip-flop also was viewed through this political prism: a congressman who once happily embraced President Bush trying to distance himself from the administration.

(The senior provision was not so black and white. It would have jeopardized so-called Medicare Advantage plans, but Democrats and Republicans disagreed over whether HMOs could have still kept the enrollees and taken a cut in profits.)

On four occasions Thursday, Porter asked Titus how she would have voted on the first version. And instead of challenging Porter’s declaration that it would have cut off seniors, she again (as she did in a previous debate) refused to answer. Not once. Not twice. Not three times. Four times.

So those who watched saw one candidate standing up for seniors and another ducking what should have been a simple question because she did not want to be perceived as anti-seniors.

It was an emblem of Porter’s amazing success as a candidate — his ability to find a phony issue, create effective advertising behind it and hope his underfunded opponent waits too long to respond. It happened with Hafen, who didn’t take the carpetbagger charge seriously until too late. And now Titus, after Porter ran weeks of ads implying she voted to quadruple her pension and raise taxes during the current economic crisis, and accusing her of double-dipping as a university employee and legislator, may have waited too long, too.

Titus did vote for the infamous 1989 pension increase, and she has raised hundreds of millions in taxes. But to imply she did this while “Nevada families are struggling” is outlandish — and yet effective if not rebutted.

The double-dipping charge — and Porter has repeatedly held up a Las Vegas Sun story to make the case — is a classic example of a Big Lie that may have had an effect. The claim actually is refuted within the same Sun story Porter held up as his “evidence” — showing just how utterly ruthless he can be — and Titus actually has cost herself tens of thousands of dollars by taking leaves to be a lawmaker. Belatedly, Titus has played the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” game, by airing misleading ads about Porter’s votes “as the economy crumbles” — votes that are not contemporaneous. But is it too little, too late?

Titus may win based on sheer, overwhelming numbers of Democrats voting an Obama-Titus ticket. But Porter’s ads clearly have cut her — she may be bleeding independent voters — and it’s always hard to quantify how many nincompoops will vote against Titus because they don’t like her accent.

By the end of Thursday’s debate, Titus could barely contain her frustration at Porter’s tactics and portrayal of her career. But her frustration will pale in comparison to that of the state and national Democratic Party elite if the wave crashes down in Nevada on Nov. 4 and somehow misses Congressional District Three.

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