In Nevada, Will Demographics Trump Ethics?

(AP Photo/Nevada Appeal, Chad Lundquist)

Representative Shelley Berkley of Nevada during a news conference prior to her speech to the state legislature in Carson City, Nevada

If Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley still has a shot at ousting Republican Dean Heller from one of Nevada’s two senatorial seats next Tuesday, she should get none of the credit. Mired in scandal, under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, Berkley shouldn’t have a prayer in next week’s election. Yet she does—because Nevada’s burgeoning Latino population is moving the state leftward, because Heller trumpets his anti-immigrant stance, and because Barack Obama and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid both have fearsome get-out-the-voter operations in the state that will get those Latinos to the polls.

The Nevada race is one of five senatorial contests this year in which the Democrats have a chance to flip a seat that’s currently Republican. (The other four are in Maine, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Arizona.) At the top of the ticket, Obama is the clear favorite to carry the state, notwithstanding Nevada’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate. Despite Obama’s lead, though, Berkeley has trailed Heller in ten of the 11 October polls on Talking Points Memo’s Polltracker web page, while tying in just one (a PPP poll completed on October 24.) She lags Heller by a 46-40 margin in the most recent Survey USA poll, taken on October 27 and 28 (the same poll gave Obama a four-point lead over Mitt Romney). Could it be that all those polls are wrong?

Nevada is certainly a state that has confounded pollsters before, and Latinos have been the apparent cause of their confusion. In 2010, the Real Clear Politics average of polls taken in the final week of October showed Tea Party Republican challenger Sharron Angle leading Reid by 2.7 percent. Reid won that race by 5.6 percent, due to heavy support and turnout from the Latino electorate. Only Reid’s own pollster, Mark Mellman, had a poll that showed Reid winning. Mellman is now working for Berkley, and in mid-October the campaign released his poll showing Berkley with a three-point advantage over Heller.

Is Mellman right again? Could history repeat itself to Berkley’s advantage next week?

“Democrats win big in Las Vegas,” a union operative who has run campaigns in Nevada said on Friday. “But they need to run even in and around Reno, in Washoe County, to offset the Republicans’ advantage in rural areas." Roughly half the electorate has either voted early or sent in absentee ballots, and in the early voting, "the number of Democratic and Republican ballots in Washoe are running even—a good sign for Berkley.”

Another good sign is that this year’s Democratic voter-mobilization programs are larger than the ones that put Reid over the top. Obama has 26 field offices in the state to Romney’s 12, and in statewide early voting, Democratic ballots exceed the number of Republican ballots by roughly 45,000. But Democrats must surmount one major hurdle they didn’t face when Reid ran two years ago: their candidate.

Shelley Berkeley has represented the Las Vegas area in Congress since 1999 and has a voting history well within the Democratic mainstream—which is no longer an electoral kiss of death in this once center-right state, as Obama and Reid’s victories confirm. Her electoral hurdles aren’t ideological; they’re ethical. In September 2011, The New York Times reported that Berkley had pushed legislation and sought to influence federal regulators on questions that directly affected her husband’s business. Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a kidney specialist whose practice directs the kidney transplant center at Las Vegas’s University Medical Center and owns a dozen dialysis centers across Nevada. When regulators noticed that the rate of kidney-transplant failures and deaths were unusually high at the Medical Center, they moved to shut it down, but Berkley interceded to keep the Center open. She has also sponsored at least five House bills, the Times reported, that expanded federal reimbursements for kidney care.

In the wake of the revelations, the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) gave Berkley a “dishonorable mention” on its list of most corrupt congressmen in 2011, and kept her on the 2012 list as well. Worse, this July, the House Ethnics Committee opened a formal investigation of the allegations that Berkley had used her position to profit her husband.

Berkley’s web has been tangled for some time. During her first run for Congress, in 1998, she grappled with revelations that as a government-affairs adviser for the Las Vegas Sands—Sheldon Adelson’s company—she had crossed some ethical, if not legal, boundaries. During the two preceding years, as Adelson was planning to build the Venetian, his mega-hotel on the Vegas Strip, she had advised the company to make campaign contributions to four public officials with power of approval over the hotel’s plans. She’d also recommended that the Sands hire the uncle of one of those officials and give a daiquiri concession to a relative of another. After apologizing for these transgressions, however, she prevailed at the polls. This was Vegas, after all. (Berkley’s once-close relationship to Adelson fell apart when she opposed his decision to keep unions out of his hotel. To this day, the Venetian remains the only major hotel on the Strip that isn’t unionized.)

It’s these issues that are posing a problem for Berkley—not her party affiliation or voting record. Registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans in Nevada by a 526,986 to 436,799 margin. Berkley’s voting record tracks the evolution of the state in a more liberal direction. She’s been a solid supporter of women’s rights, environmental concerns, gun control, and union interests. This October, Berkley vowed to oppose any cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of grand bargain to reduce the deficit—a decision that could only enhance her appeal to progressives who might be leery about her personal affairs.

A more potent factor steering progressives to Berkley is her opponent. Republican Dean Heller was elected in 2006 to represent Nevada’s 2nd congressional district, which at that time comprised most of the state outside the Las Vegas metropolitan area. In 2011, Governor Brian Sandoval appointed Heller to the U.S. Senate seat that came open when Republican John Ensign retired, after acknowledging having had an affair with a staffer and then having his parents pay her family $80,000 (either out of random generosity or to keep them quiet). Heller’s record is that of a typical Republican legislator in the age of the Tea Party—voting for the Ryan budget, opposing any tax increases for the wealthy, and taking the hardest of hard lines on immigration. Heller not only vocally opposes the Dream Act but also has called for revisiting the constitutional provision granting citizenship to anyone—most especially children of undocumented immigrants—born in the United States. Berkley has been a strong proponent of the Dream Act and creating a path to legalization for the undocumented.

The question to be resolved on Election Day is just how much this contrast on immigration will help Berkley with the state’s fast-growing Latino electorate. In 2004, Latinos comprised just 10 percent of the state’s electorate. In 2008, according to the network exit polls, Latinos constituted 15 percent of Nevada voters, and they favored Obama over GOP presidential nominee John McCain by a margin of 76 to 22 percent. In 2010, Latinos constituted 16 percent of the state electorate, and Reid carried them over Angle by a 69-30 margin. And this year? According to the Obama campaign, the Latino adult citizen population of Nevada has grown by 39 percent just since 2008.

Yet in the most recent Survey USA poll, where Berkley trails Heller by 6 points overall, she actually trailed Heller among Latinos by a point, 42 percent to 41 percent. A number of veteran Nevada political observers doubt that this is an accurate measure of Latino voter sentiment; University of Nevada Las Vegas political scientist David Damore told the Las Vegas Review Journal that he believes Berkley actually leads among Latinos by a three-to-two margin. Inasmuch as the inaccurate polls on Reid’s race two years ago turned out to be particularly inaccurate in measuring the Latino vote, there’s at least some precedent for believing that Damore is right. (For that matter, the Survey USA poll has Heller leading Berkley by a 15-point margin in union households, a figure that almost defies comprehension inasmuch as the largest union in the state, the Las Vegas hotel workers union, is a fiercely progressive, heavily Latino, local.)

If Heller really has the lead the Survey USA poll says he does, it’s because his campaign, not surprisingly, has trained most of its fire against Berkley’s presumed ethnical shortcomings. Heller has called her “the most unethical, corrupt person I’ve ever met in my life.” How well this line of attack plays in Nevada, a state seldom associated with ethical practices, remains to be seen.  

The demographics and political machinery are in place for Berkley to pull out a squeaker. Whether her programmatic differences with Heller will matter more to Democratic voters than her ethical challenges is perhaps the central question of next week’s election. “Shelley’s an acquired taste,” says one veteran Nevada Democrat, “like a very strong Scotch.” Nevada voters will decide on Tuesday whether that’s too strong for them.

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