Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The Democrats’ storied turnout machine lived up to its reputation last week, delivering victories to President Barack Obama, Congressman-elect Steven Horsford and enough Democratic legislative candidates to keep the party in control of the state Legislature.
But, matched against a flawed opponent, one Republican managed to best the machine.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller eked out the narrowest of victories against Democrat Shelley Berkley, overcoming a distinct voter registration disadvantage, a lack of name recognition where most of the people in the state live and the Democrats’ formidable ground game.
Democrats argue Heller didn’t best the machine so much as he was handed a weak opponent. Indeed, Heller didn’t win over a majority of the electorate, thanks largely to the fact a record number of voters found both candidates too unpalatable to support and voted "none of the above."
Even Heller’s political advisers acknowledge that his narrow victory doesn’t rest solely on what the campaign did to turn out its voters.
“When you win by 1 point, everything you did made the difference: the TV ads, the ground game, Dean’s visibility in the community,” his campaign manager Mac Abrams said. “It doesn’t come down to just one thing.”
Still, the Heller campaign avoided defeat at the hands of a Democratic machine constructed, ostensibly, to pull even the most flawed candidates over the finish line. And his camp did so, in part, by making some strategic decisions on its turnout efforts-- decisions that could become a model for Republicans hoping to one day compete with the Democrats ground game.
Democrats began dominating the turnout field after 2006, when U.S. Sen. Harry Reid made the decision to build a professional, lasting party organization in the state. He hired a close and trusted adviser to oversee its construction and began funneling millions of dollars to the Nevada Democratic Party to hire staff and purchase technology for registering and tracking voters.
Since then, the party hasn’t ceased in its voter registration and identification efforts.
“A machine tracks voters from the time of registration all the way up through voting on Election Day,” Republican strategist Robert Uithoven said. “They are able to register a voter, identify their issues, communicate their message to them, and turn them out on Election Day.”
Republicans have nothing of the sort.
This year, the Republican National Committee joined with Nevada operatives to hastily build a machine for presidential hopeful Mitt Romney—labeling it Team Nevada. And they managed to put together a turnout operation that exceeded expectations, even if it fell short of winning the state for Romney.
Heller’s campaign, however, didn’t rely solely on Team Nevada for its turnout efforts, even as it praised that team’s ability to get Republicans to the polls throughout the state.
But Republicans trailed Democrats by 7-points in statewide voter registration—a disadvantage the Heller camp knew they had to address.
They set their sites on nonpartisans and soft Democrats.
“It’s a part of the equation,” Abrams said. “When you’re down by 7 points, where are you going to make that up? Independents. It’s simple mathematics. They are a powerful percentage in the make up of the electorate.
“We always believed we needed to get the independents and we made a strong commitment to do that.”
Heller’s campaign built its own turnout universe outside of the Team Nevada operation. They meticulously gathered the names of all newly registered independents—who were registering at a faster clip than either Democrats or Republicans for much of the season.
Then, they relentlessly called and visited those voters at their doorsteps—particularly in Washoe County.
Heller’s campaign also put a significant amount of the candidate’s time toward the effort. Twice a week, Heller sat on a conference call with hundreds of independent voters.
“Dean does not screen questions,” Abrams said. “Twice a week, for an hour and a half, independents got to hear from him directly about how he did not vote to end Medicare and they could ask him anything they wanted.”
Ryan Erwin, a Republican consultant, said that ability of individual Republican candidates to separate themselves somewhat from the joint GOP effort is key—and a luxury that Democrats may not have in a state so dominated by the machine built by Reid.
“Team Nevada was the best turnout effort we’ve had,” Erwin said. “We’re just not as good at it as the Democrats yet. But campaigns have to do their own thing, too.
“Democrats have almost no autonomy. They buy into the machine. I don’t know a single Democrat who didn’t buy into the Chicago talking points. It was both admirable and bizarre and annoying all at the same time.”
In the end, Heller’s effort to target independent voters appeared to pay off. According to exit polls, he swamped the field, beating Berkley by 20 points among independent voters.
A Democratic source familiar with the inner workings of Berkley’s campaign strongly disputed any notion Heller’s victory was a failing of the Democratic machine.
Berkley was under a formal House ethics investigation into whether she used her office as a congresswoman to benefit her husband’s medical practice—a deadweight on her campaign that she was never able to escape.
“That machine was able to drag her within 12,000 votes,” the Democratic operative said. “But there just weren’t enough people willing to stomach her apparent corruption charges and vote for her. At some point you’re just really pushing up against a rock solid ceiling.”
The same operative gave a brutal assessment of Berkley as a candidate: “The three most flawed candidates of the 2012 election cycle were Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Shelley Berkley. They had the same disapproval rating.”
Akin and Mourdock both met their peril with outrageously insensitive remarks on rape and abortion.
After three election cycles of being trounced by Democrats in key statewide races, Nevada Republicans are desperately looking for a way to build a competitive machine of their own. Many say it will take a Reid-like figure to finance and oversee it.
So far, top Republicans such as former Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Brian Sandoval have expressed little interest in being that figure, deciding instead to rely on their own popularity with voters and their own individual campaign operations to stay in office.
But Heller isn’t exactly popular with a majority of voters—as evidenced by his narrow win. And some will be looking to him to start building a Nevada Republican ground game that could benefit the party up and down the ticket.
Abrams stopped short of saying Heller would play that role. But he acknowledged Heller has no plans to disappear from the field, pointing to the fact Heller continued to run campaigns even when he represented Nevada’s exceedingly safe Republican congressional district before being appointed to the Senate.
“The Heller organization will remain out there,” he said. “We didn’t leave in ’08 and we ran a ground game in 2010 as well to stay in shape.
“We’re not going away any time soon.”