Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Rep. Dina Titus, who two years ago was swept into Congress by a wave of Democratic enthusiasm, lost her seat Tuesday to Republican challenger Joe Heck, another victim of the Republican backlash that has redefined the House of Representatives.
A freshman incumbent, Titus had struggled — like many House incumbents in her party — to distance herself from the Obama administration and Democrats in control of Congress. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. Titus split from Democratic leaders several times during her two-year tenure, likely in anticipation of a difficult midterm re-election. She broke from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to advocate for tax breaks for the wealthy. She expressed concerns about health care reform when it was being considered and remained silent on the bill for weeks (although she eventually voted for it). She signed a letter opposing a tax on insurers that provide higher-end policies to employees, one of the provisions of the health care bill leaders were pushing for.
Still, many voters lumped Titus in with Democrats who they see as having failed to significantly improve the economy or create jobs. Titus struggled against the strong anti-incumbent feeling that swept the nation this year, surpassing that seen during the past three midterm elections. She ended up losing by less than 1 percent of the vote.
“It’s easy when you’re the challenger because you don’t have to present what you would do,” said David Damore, a political scientist at UNLV. “You just have to raise enough doubts about the other side, and in this environment, that’s not hard to do.”
Titus won a narrow victory in the 3rd Congressional District seat in 2008, making her an easy target this year. She beat Republican Jon Porter by just 5 percentage points, while Obama won the district by 13 points. That was the first sign Titus might not have an easy road to a second term. She’s also the first Democrat to represent the swing district, which was formed after the 2000 Census.
Titus made a name for herself in Congress fighting for Nevadans losing their homes — 13 of the 20 ZIP codes with the most foreclosures in the country are in her district — but her name also hurt her. Titus was never able to shake the “Dina Taxes” moniker Republicans stuck her with during her unsuccessful 2006 bid for governor. Confident in the winning tactic, the GOP drummed up the nickname again this year, splashing it across campaign ads and mailers.
Heck, a former state senator who started out this election cycle running for governor, also has a political history. To get on the governor’s ballot, he would have had to beat out a crowded field of Republican contenders — an unlikely proposition — so he dropped out of that race in late 2009 and announced his intention to run for Congress instead, a race without serious Republican opposition. Titus rarely mentioned the strategy.
“If I were Dina, I would have played up Joe Heck as the opportunist,” Damore said. “Voters don’t like that.”
Instead, Titus and third-party groups campaigning on her behalf rehashed inaccurate claims about Heck opposing cancer vaccines for women.
The outside groups that helped push campaign lines for both candidates played a key role in the election, but especially for Heck. Titus outraised Heck in campaign contributions by $1 million. But the Republican gained significant ground with outside expenditures. Nearly two dozen third-party groups spent more than $2.2 million stumping for Heck, enabling him to match Titus dollar-for-dollar. Outside groups spent only $1.8 million on Titus’ behalf. The race for the 3rd Congressional District attracted the most outside money of any House race in the nation, except for a battle in Michigan.
“No one commercial matters but the sum total of them does resonate,” Damore said. “That’s why it’s so important to be balanced, so the narrative doesn’t tilt. Dina went up real early, and I don’t think she had much left in the tank.”