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Column: For Berkley, what might have been


Former Rep. Shelley Berkley says she takes full responsibility for losing her U.S. Senate race to Dean Heller in 2012.

And the ex-Democratic congresswoman stuck by that, even after an incredible television interview last week in which she called her campaign staff “so-called experts that [sic] didn’t know anything,” adding, “if I had it to do over, I wouldn’t let these people run my bathwater.”

But she’s not blaming her staff for the super-close loss. She’s blaming herself for listening to her staff, resulting in the super-close loss, which is, you know, totally the exact same thing.

“I don’t blame anybody for my defeat,” Berkley told me last week. “I blame me for my defeat.”

You could be excused if you got the wrong impression while watching KSNV Channel 3’s “The Agenda” on Wednesday, where Berkley had no words of praise for her former campaign team. “I’m not sure my last campaign for Senate had a message, and if I had it to do over again, I would have thrown out all the consultants,” she told hosts Hugh Jackson and Elizabeth Crum. “But I have to say I thought my Senate campaign was one of the worst that I have ever been involved in.”

But Berkley — not known as a shrinking violet — was in charge of her own campaign!

“By the time I realized, and I knew it was spinning out of control, and I had lost control of my campaign, by the time you make that assessment, you’re in October and I thought it would be so much worse to get rid of everybody,” she said.

Crum asked her about authenticity. “If I had done that and been myself, I’d be a United States senator right now, with all due respect be sitting there with [U.S. Sen.] Ted Cruz [R-Texas] instead of you.”

We know which one she’d prefer!

It’s not hard to understand why Berkley is still hung up on the race: She lost by 11,576 votes out of nearly 1 million cast (including 45,277 for “none of these candidates”). She’s now forced to sit on the sidelines while her Republican rival Heller debates issues in which Berkley developed a deep expertise during 14 years in the House of Representatives, including the Syria crisis, a potential government shutdown and the fight over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Not only that, but Berkley was accused of ethical misconduct during the 2012 race, allegations that led to an investigation by the House Ethics Committee and a spot on the dishonorable mention portion of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s “most corrupt” list. (Berkley ultimately was found to have taken official actions to help her husband’s medical practice get reimbursed by government programs, although the committee found she did not act with the intent to enrich herself. She’s currently trying to get access to the committee’s full investigative file.)

Not only that, but a last-minute attack ad falsely accused her of living it up during a taxpayer-funded trip to Italy, which was really a brief stop on an official trip related to her service with the Transatlantic Dialogue group.

“I think it was the ethics attack that really threw us,” Berkley said of her 2012 effort. The ethics allegations — which originally broke in The New York Times — were devastating and, Berkley says, caused her to doubt herself and lean more on the advice of consultants, when she ordinarily would have trusted herself to navigate the grinding give and take that is a statewide campaign.

“My first mistake was trying to be what they wanted me to be instead of being me,” she said.

No one can know for sure if things would have been different if she had. Berkley’s personality made her much more popular with the Democratic base here in Southern Nevada than she ever was in Reno or the rurals. But there’s little point in rehashing all those questions now. Why Berkley lost the race, what she could have or should have done differently in hindsight and who exactly is to blame for the defeat are now questions for yesterday.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.