Friday, April 15, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Shelley Berkley never thought seriously of running for the U.S. Senate until June 16, 2009.
But shortly after Sen. John Ensign publicly declared his infidelity and started the countdown clock ticking down to his political demise, Berkley’s phone began to ring. And ring. And ring.
She had a political base. She could raise the money. She was the natural Democratic candidate, especially if Ensign resigned and a special election occurred.
But Ensign held on, his delusions of becoming president replaced by less-grand fantasies of holding onto his seat. Time passed and even after Rep. Dean Heller made it clear he was running whether Ensign was or not, Berkley was torn — pulled forward by the allure of becoming a member of the Club of 100 and tugged back by the safety of a seat in a job she loves.
Finally, this month Berkley made what clearly was an agonizing decision, giving up her guaranteed House seat for an uncertain bid against Heller. The congresswoman never stopped wanting to run in the last (almost) two years, but her Hamlet act forced national Democrats to feel out constitutional officers. And Meddler-in-Chief Harry Reid, with whom Berkley has never enjoyed a warm relationship (can’t name too many Nevada elected officials who do with the majority leader), refused to give her the full-throated endorsement she wanted.
Insiders believe that Reid and the folks at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee preferred Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto because she could energize the state’s critical Hispanic vote and bring in national Latino money. But there was more to it, and there’s no hiding this: Reid and others believe Berkley won’t play well outside Clark County, that her flamboyant Vegascentric personality will cause hemorrhaging in Washoe County. Berkley also has not had a serious race in a decade and her penchant for openness may be considered an asset for a human being but not for a political candidate.
But all of this was forgotten Thursday when Berkley announced her candidacy. Reid and DSCC boss Patty Murray treated her announcement as if the savior had arrived. Berkley is “one of Nevada’s most respected leaders and one of our state’s fiercest advocates,” Reid effervesced. “This is a great day for Nevada,” Murray frothed.
Once Cortez Masto made it clear she wasn’t going to run, although they started to think Secretary of State Ross Miller might be the better candidate, Reid & Co. suddenly saw Berkley in a new light. Instead of the candidate they feared couldn’t win, she was the fundraising dynamo, the workaholic pol, the meilleur de candidates possible.
What’s more, the DSCC took a poll, which validated the Mark Mellman survey Berkley commissioned. So Reid gave her a Vegas air kiss and away we go.
Heller, as I have previously written, is no instajuggernaut. He has little name ID in Southern Nevada, and while he may be a more disciplined candidate than Berkley, he certainly will not outwork her.
I found it humorous on March 30 when GOP operative Robert Uithoven, who helmed Sue Lowden’s failed run for the Senate last year, tweeted: “Still say (Heller) should in-kind the filing fee to get (Berkley) into the (Senate) race next year. Talk about a contrast ...”
Really? We shall see.
Uithoven also works for Sheldon Adelson, who surely will train his financial guns (independent expenditure alert) on Berkley (she used to work for him, much bad blood there) after his failed investment in Newt Gingrich becomes apparent. But Democrats, who see the Nevada seat as possibly determining control of the Senate, will have plenty of money, too.
The math favors Berkley. Democrats still have a 60,000-voter edge in Nevada and in a presidential year, the party machine is formidable. I keep hearing that miracle worker Brian Sandoval is going to revamp the GOP, but that is a work in progress.
The key to the race may be what I call The Georgiou Problem. Attorney Byron Georgiou has criticized Berkley as a “career politician,” and he put out a prickly statement Thursday, saying, “This is an election not a coronation …”
I don’t know why he would believe such nonsense. Primaries often are coronations, and it still will be if Reid has anything to do with it. The majority leader will try to squeeze Georgiou out by bribing him with promises of future support or an appointment or some such Machiavellian trick. But if the Meddler-in-Chief is not successful, nothing is so dangerous as a rich guy with nothing to lose.
After nearly two years along this serpentine road, how painfully ironic for Berkley if she were to be denied a U.S. Senate seat because of a primary she could lose (unlikely) or one she could win with what would be a Pyrrhic victory.