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July 31, 2014

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Jon Ralston:

Ethics issue arises again in U.S. Senate race

If it’s always darkest before the dawn, Rep. Shelley Berkley must be wondering when the sun is ever going to come up.

Ever since September, when The New York Times published a blistering front-page piece questioning her ethics, the congresswoman who would be senator has been trying to avoid that subject by pummeling Sen. Dean Heller on familiar issues — being in the (presumably unctuous) pocket of Big Oil, ending Medicare as everyone (and their mother and father) knows it, and warring (wife and kids excepted, I assume) on women.

I’m sure her campaign believes that her relentless rhetoric, amplified by the inbox-filling state Democratic Party, has solidified certain pockets of voters — women, seniors, Big Oil-haters. And they may be right that the latest incarnation of the Paul Ryan budget gets them a whole new round of opportunities to make Heller into someone who wants to — wait for it — end Medicare as we know it.

Fine. S.O.P. I get it.

But Berkley can avoid the ethics subject no more. On Friday, the House Ethics Committee, acting on a referral from the Office of Congressional Ethics, announced it was extending both the probe into Berkley’s conduct and her political pain.

My guess is this came as little surprise to Team Berkley, which must have been preparing for this. These things follow a familiar trajectory — news story published, someone (in this case the Nevada GOP last September) files an ethics complaint, the ethics tribunal takes forever to act, thus casting shadow over politician. As soon as the Times published the story implying Berkley’s advocacy on health care issues benefited her physician husband — “A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain” was the headline — her campaign knew what would occur.

But that surely doesn’t ease the sting of Friday’s revelation. And if this is, as I believe, a margin of error race, this issue could be the margin of victory for Heller.

If, that is, the panel decides to move forward this summer with a full-blown probe, ensuring the shadow will reach until November. This is especially worrisome for Berkley because the Heller folks, as the National Republican Senatorial Committee signaled with a breathless release Friday, hopes to use ethics as a linchpin of its campaign.

The NRSC missive hearkened back to an incident in the mid-1990s when Berkley advised her then-boss, Sheldon Adelson, to do favors for county commissioners and judges to establish quid pro quo relationships. The NRSC described “what appears to be a pattern of ethical questions that have surrounded her activities over the years.”

That will leave a mark.

Or will it?

Team Berkley seems to think that her defense — that she was helping Southern Nevada patients, that she helped save a kidney transplant program, that her cause was just if not clumsy — can neutralize the issue. And I have no doubt they will be relentless in her defense.

But this process already has surmounted two hurdles — the OCE and the initial Ethics Committee perusal — and if it gets over the next one, Team Berkley better start reading less Machiavelli and more Sisyphus.

As Politico’s John Bresnahan put it Friday, this is “sure to become a major political issue in her Senate race against GOP Sen. Dean Heller.” Bresnahan also pointed out that the ethics panel had to extend the deadline for action until July 9 so as not comport with an only-in-D.C. rule that it cannot act “within a two-month window leading up to any election.”

Making matters worse for Berkley, the ethics news came only one day after capital watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which unceasingly pilloried ex-Sen. John Ensign, highlighted her activities in a “Family Affair” report. CREW already had given Berkley “dishonorable mention” status.

Anyone see the potential for a 30-second ad? My guess is they already are produced.

Meanwhile, Berkley’s campaign has not exactly been a thing of beauty lately, with her distasteful assault on free speech by trying to get Rush Limbaugh fired (hey, but women love it!) and her goofy stunt of asking Heller to agree no outside spending should occur. (It’s inside spending — aka Adelson — she is worried about.)

Team Berkley and the Democrats apparently think they can replay Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle, which I think is a huge mistake. Not only is Heller not Angle, Berkley is not Reid — that is, she doesn’t even have some Washoe County goodwill to bank on. And if she loses by enough in the state’s other urban county — and this story is part of Reno’s introduction to her — she is history.

Yes, it’s only March. But the sun shows no sign of coming up for Berkley, who might see her chances of a Senate seat eclipsed if this issue is not blotted out by midsummer.

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