Wednesday, June 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Now that the primary nonsense has passed, it’s time to get to the main event.
I speak, of course, of the Nevada Senate race between Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley, which promises to be as exciting and intense, in very different ways, as last cycle’s Harry Reid-Sharron Angle imbroglio. Oh, and it also could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Thanks to some serendipitous polling released this week — PPP has the race as a dead heat (44-43, Heller) — and some dynamics crystallizing, I think we can be fairly sure of a few things in what could be a much closer contest than Reid-Angle. (The poll can be found at here.) It’s always dangerous to try to deconstruct a potentially fluid and possibly mercurial contest, but I’ve always been a risk-taker, so here are a half-dozen factors to watch during the next five months:
• Atmospherics: There are a lot of blustery storm fronts coalescing in Nevada this cycle that could blow the Senate race one way or another. The presidential contest is the most obvious, with Nevada’s battleground state status ensuring that millions of dollars will be spent here to try to influence voters. The Reid/Democratic Party machine is still whirring, although we will see if it has the same ferocity it did for the majority leader two years ago, while the state Republican Party is more a venue for stand-up comedy and more fit for Branson than Las Vegas Boulevard South. But the shadow GOP should do just fine, and one thing to remember is Heller has had from Day One a team of successful Nevada-experienced advisers, including Pete Ernaut and Mike Slanker, who know what to do to win statewide races. The Heller campaign is not the Angle campaign — and Heller also will have Nevada’s surrogate-in-chief, Gov. Brian Sandoval, who can help him. (I wonder, though, if Gov. Sunny will ever rain on Berkley.) Heller also is not Angle. But Berkley is not Reid — she is far better at retail politics and less likely to make a gaffe, although, ironically, she is being cloistered much as Angle was in 2010. Finally, Meddler-in-Chief Reid will do what he does, but he has not always meddled effectively.
• Washoe: Berkley will win Clark by a sizable margin (how big could matter) and get destroyed in the rurals (the level of destruction could matter). So how she performs in Reno and environs could determine the contest. She seems to be getting up there more and is running ads there, too, pounding Heller for some distant flirtation as a stockbroker. But those folks do not like Vegas people, and Berkley is very Vegas. So she will need to make a sale up there — she doesn’t have to win Washoe, as Reid did, but she can’t lose by too much.
• Hispanics: PPP says Heller is only down 9 points with Latinos, which the poll projects will represent 12 percent of the electorate. If those two figures are true on Election Day, Berkley will almost certainly lose. She needs Hispanics to be at least the 15 percent of voters they were in the last two cycles and she must win Latinos by 20 points — maybe 30. The Republicans have discovered that the Hispanic vote is important — RNC outreach, Heller softening rhetoric, a conservative Latino group suddenly sprouting. I find it hard to believe that will do much good. But if it does enough to keep Heller’s loss under 20 points — much less to 9 — he is in the game.
• Indies: PPP found that Heller is up 7 percentage points (45-38) with independents — my guess is his team believes the senator is solidly up double digits with indies.) Nonpartisans make up 16 percent of the Nevada electorate and are critical to statewide races in Nevada these days. Independent voters in Nevada traditionally have been more conservative, so you would think Berkley would try more for a revving-up-the-base strategy. But because Democrats have lost so much of their partisan edge in registration, she will need to do well with indies.
• Ethics: This is the race’s wild card. Early next month, the House Ethics Committee is scheduled to decide whether to go forward to investigate Berkley on allegations she used her position to advocate on medical issues that helped her doctor husband’s practice. Her team insists they can win even if the panel proceeds. But even if it’s gone, Heller’s folks will still use the issue. And if it’s not, the ethics cloud will darken, if not destroy, Berkley’s chances.
Two years ago, the general election season began with a bang as Reid began airing spots within days of the primary, drowning Angle before she could get her sea legs. I can’t wait to see what is about to happen as Heller and Berkley pivot to the general election.