Senate race is in Nevada spotlight

While the presidential election is likely to dominate Nevada this fall, during the dog days of summer its Senate race is getting all the attention.

The House Ethics Committee announced an investigation earlier this week into accusations that Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) used her office to benefit her husband's medical practice, leading to a series of rough headlines for her — and near-instant attacks from her opponent Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and counterattacks from the Berkley campaign.

In contrast, there has been little public movement there in the presidential race. Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney have set foot in the state since May and there have been no recent polls of the state.

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Berkley and Heller are locked in a tight race. While there hasn’t been a public poll of the race since late May, both parties have targeted the race as a top priority.

The House Ethics complaint has the potential to do some serious damage to Berkley’s campaign, although some of the sting of the investigation fades because the issue involves her trying to help area hospitals. Moreover, as the Berkley’s campaign has been quick to point out, the state’s entire delegation, including Heller, fought to keep open the kidney dialysis center with which Berkley’s husband’s company had business ties.

Both candidates reacted quickly. Heller immediately released an ad blasting her on the issue, though it was clearly filmed before the investigation was launched and referenced only the New York Times story that spurred the investigation.

Berkley's campaign shot back with its own ad pointing out the investigation was triggered by a complaint from the Nevada Republican Party.

While the issue is unlikely to become the sole focus of the campaign, in a race as close as this one it could be the tipping point.

“This is very damaging to her. The question is whether this is fatal to her,” said Nevada politics guru and Las Vegas Sun writer Jon Ralson. “It’s hard to believe this is just going to go away.”

Democrats have stuck by her.

“I think this is going to be fine for Shelley,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on a Thursday conference call with reporters. “She’s a terrific candidate, she is a person who has always fought for Nevadans, and certainly she should fight for these people who are sick and in danger of dying.”

Democrats remain hopeful that Obama can win the state by more than a few points, and that Berkley could ride his coattails into office.

Obama won Nevada by a stunning 12 points in 2008, one of the biggest swings of any swing state after President George W. Bush carried it by two points in 2004 and four points in 2000.

Part of that sizeable victory was driven by the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population. Hispanics now make up 26 percent of the state’s population, up from 20 percent in 2000, and grew from 10 percent of the voting-age citizen population in the state in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010, a huge jump.

A much higher number turned out to vote in 2008 than in 2004, largely because of the organizing efforts of Obama’s campaign and Reid’s well-oiled political machine. Obama recognizes how important getting those voters back to the polls is this election: His campaign has already spent $1.5 million on Spanish-language ads in the state, while Romney has so far spent only $80,000 on Spanish-language ads there.

Another issue for Romney: While Obama’s campaign and the Reid machine are well-established, the Republican Party there has long been in a state of dysfunction, and major parts of it were taken over by supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) who feel no allegiance to Romney.

The Romney campaign and Republican National Committee have begun to set up a shadow state party they’re calling Team Nevada, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was in Elko, Nevada on Friday to open one of their first field offices in the state. But while the group is working hard to build out its field program it got a late start and is highly unlikely to catch up to the state’s Democratic Party.

“There are some pretty smart people involved in the operation but they started at such a deficit,” Ralston said.

While the state’s fast-growing Hispanic population could help Obama, its dismal economy is a real problem for him. Nevada was one of the centers of the mortgage meltdown and has the highest unemployment in the country at 11.6 percent.

Mormon voters could also make the difference in a close election. Mormons account for seven percent of the state’s population. Mormons are known for voting in high numbers and are excited that Romney, who shares their faith, is running.

There have been no recent public polls of the state. Obama led Romney by six points in a poll conducted by the Democratic Public Policy Polling firm in early June, and by two points in a late May NBC poll.

The state also hosts two potentially competitive House races. Rep. Joe Heck (R) is in a tough fight with former firefighter and Nevada state Assembly Speaker John Oceguera (D) in a newly drawn swing seat in Las Vegas’s southern suburbs. Obama took 54 percent in the district four years ago, and the district has swung back and forth between the parties in recent wave elections.

Democrats have a clear but not insurmountable edge in a newly drawn, Democratic-leaning district that stretches from Las Vegas’s northern suburbs up into more rural territory.