Sunday, May 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In 1998, Washoe County saved Harry Reid’s career.
Reid would later tell some people he should have lost to an up-and-coming, charismatic congressman named John Ensign. But the two-term senator squeaked by, after a recount, by 428 votes, and Washoe was the reason for the victory.
Reid didn’t win the urban North — he lost by about 2,000 votes. But Ensign ignored Washoe, which was then heavily Republican, taking it for granted, costing himself the race and dramatically altering Nevada history.
Washoe would never be ignored again — and that helps explain why President Barack Obama did a stop-and-chat there Friday. (Twenty-seven minutes in a Reno neighborhood.) And in this cycle, perhaps more than any in history, the urban North could determine the outcome of critical contests, including the presidential and U.S. Senate races.
And because Nevada is a swing state in the White House race and because the U.S. Senate could come down to one seat, The Biggest Little City could have the biggest impact of any locale in America.
Washoe has changed a lot since Reid won his third term. The Democrats have worked hard and the Republican voter registration machine during the last decade would have to be upgraded to meet Rube Goldberg standards. In 2000, the Republicans had a 17,000 voter edge in Washoe; when the Democratic wave hit Nevada in 2008, lifting Obama to victory here, the Democrats had a 1,500-voter lead. But Obama won Washoe by 23,000 votes that year, destroying any chance for John McCain to win the state.
That’s an ominous sign for 2012 and one of the reasons national pundits, including Karl Rove, say the state leans toward the president, despite the vaunted, overhyped Mormon vote that will go overwhelmingly, except for a stray sheep or two, to Mitt Romney.
Because of attrition on the voter rolls and some good work by GOP activists in the North, the Republicans have managed to regain the voter registration edge in Washoe by 4,000 votes. But the GOP had a 1,000-vote edge in 2010 when the most hated man in the Republican Party, Harry Reid, won the urban North by 7,000 votes.
Again, this does not bode well — and Republicans know it.
Washoe has always struck me, even when the Republicans dominated, as very different in its internal major party makeup than Clark County. There have always seemed to be proportionally more liberal Republicans and more progressive Democrats in Reno/Sparks than in Las Vegas/Henderson/North Las Vegas.
Thus, Washoe has become the swing county in a key swing state. And because of its strange, occasionally mercurial demographic mix, it is a tough nut to crack for major party candidates, no matter their affiliation.
Clark County is much easier to predict. The Democratic candidate — be it President Obama or Rep. Shelley Berkley — will have to drive up Democratic turnout to obtain a cushion to offset rural county hemorrhaging and then let Washoe decide the race. For context, Reid won Clark County by 41,000 votes in his decisive victory over Sharron Angle and Obama defeated McCain by 123,000 votes in a much higher turnout presidential year.
Neither the president nor Berkley can hope to do as well as Obama 1.0 or Reid in 2010, respectively. And both will get destroyed in the cow counties, where Democratic statewide candidates go to be reviled.
So that’s why voters such as Reno’s Val Keller, whom the president visited Friday, are critical. Keller is an emblem of what could determine the presidential race — here and elsewhere — and decide whether Berkley can do well in the urban North.
Keller is a Republican, but she still might vote for Obama. She told KRNV’s Brooke Boone after the president came into her house, after a program he started helped her and her husband refinance their home and save them $250 a month (!), even after he lavished praise on their barbecue (!!), that she is still undecided, that “it really depends on what happens with the economy. I’m just watching.”
And therein lies the fate of the election.
It’s a shame when you are the president of the United States and you can use the power of your office to give voters gifts during campaigns and it’s still not enough to buy their vote! Talk about ominous.
As a senator, Heller, who has not run strongly in Washoe, can similarly try to buy love with money before November, just as Reid was able to do in Washoe. Berkley doesn’t have that ability, so she must introduce herself, as she is doing with gauzy ads about her love for veterans.
But in this county, critical to elections here and maybe essential to the D.C. matrix, Berkley is going to have to do more than smile from behind a 30-second ad or give a good speech.
Just ask the president. Or Val Keller.