In one of the most negative and hotly fought campaigns in the country, Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller on Tuesday narrowly defeated Rep. Shelley Berkley to hold his Senate seat in a race rocked by an ethics investigation of his challenger.
With the economy the top issue in the election, Heller ran on a message that federal spending and the $16 trillion U.S. debt are out of control and that Democratic policies aren't solving the deep housing and unemployment problems plaguing Nevada. He also called Berkley, a former colleague in the U.S. House, "the most corrupt person" he ever met.
In a news conference around 1 a.m. Wednesday, Heller thanked voters in Nevada for returning him to the Senate, and he thanked Berkley as well despite the tough campaign. He vowed to work with Democrats to improve the country’s economic and job situation.
“Serving in the United States Senate has been the greatest privilege of my life,” Heller said. “I just want to thank Nevada for having enough confidence to take me back.”
He said with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats holding the Senate and the White House, it’s up to lawmakers like himself to reach across the aisle.
“I am as prepared and ready to work together” as anyone, Heller said. “We have to stop worrying about who gets the credit. Let’s get Republicans and Democrats to start working together.”
The aggressive underdog, Berkley promoted President Barack Obama's economic, tax and health care policies, hoping Obama's solid victory in Nevada and heavy Democratic registration and turnout would boost her chances.
Berkley also painted Heller as uncaring for twice voting for a GOP budget that would "end Medicare as we know it" by shifting the system to a voucherlike insurance reimbursement plan for future generations.
The stakes in the race were high, ending Berkley's long and successful political career. In a speech to Democratic supporters at 12:40 a.m. today, Berkley said she had no regrets as she leaves public life.
"It's been an amazing experience," she said, standing onstage with her father, who brought her to Las Vegas when she was a child nearly 50 years ago. "I would not have changed it for anything in the world."
Heller ran not just against Berkley but also against U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who used the party machine that re-elected him in 2010 to help his protégé. But Berkley was no powerful Reid. And Heller was no Sharron Angle, the tea party favorite beaten by Reid.
The 2012 campaign was so nasty that nearly one in 10 voters chose third-party candidate David VanDerBeek or "none of these candidates."
"The negative campaigning probably hurt them both," said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "And Berkley just got pounded by the ethical issue."
Before Election Day, Democrats banked 44 percent of the early ballots compared with 37 percent for the GOP, building up a firewall against an expected strong Republican turnout Tuesday.
The senator beat his opponent by about 12,000 votes, for a slim 45.9 percent to 44.7 percent victory, winning every county except Clark County, the congresswoman's home turf.
Berkley, 61, a seven-term congresswoman from a safe Democratic House district, beat Heller by about 60,600 votes in Clark County, where exit polls showed Hispanics favored her by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Heller, 52, easily won the rest of the state, including GOP-leaning rural counties and Washoe County, which he represented for three terms in Congress before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate last year to replace scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Heller, a former secretary of state who won statewide office several times, relied on crossover voters who chose him and Obama, including independents who favored Heller over Berkley by 20 points, and Northern and rural Democrats who were introduced to Berkley as an ethically challenged candidate.
Berkley was weighed down by the House Ethics Committee investigation launched in July into whether her physician husband benefited financially from her advocacy on kidney health matters. She said she only had the health care of Nevadans in mind, but about half of voters polled before the election gave her an unfavorable rating, one of the worst among Senate candidates across the country.
Voters at the polls, both for and against Berkley, cited ethics as a factor.
"I hear a lot of bad things about her, but I voted for Berkley anyway because I'm a Democrat," said Marianne Littles, an Obama voter. "I know that sounds silly, but not everybody can do right."
Berkley did benefit from Obama's coattails after appearing with him at several rallies in the fall.
"I've seen pictures of her with Obama, and so I thought, 'She's OK,' " said Perla Paez, who voted for both.
Still, voter disgust was apparent. Kim Asher, a registered Democrat, said she voted for Berkley because "she's the lesser of two evils."
At the voting site at Elaine Wynn Elementary School, Melinda and Shawn Gutierrez, both Republicans, said they voted for Heller and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The couple said Republicans are better for business and the economy. They are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although they said religion played no role in their votes. They didn't know that Heller, like Romney, is a Mormon.
"Heller will be much better than Berkley, who is just evil and dishonest," said Shawn Gutierrez, who added that his father and a friend who is a Mormon bishop voted for the first time, for Romney and Heller.
Darwin Rockantansky, a Vietnam veteran, rode around poll sites on his motorcycle with a Romney campaign sign on his bike, blasting the Lee Greenwood song "Proud to be an American."
He said he backed Heller and Romney because he believes the country is headed in the wrong direction.
"Heller will do the right thing, and I don't trust her," he said of Berkley. "I don't think she has anyone's interest in mind but her own. And I've watched her in action for a dozen years."
The Senate race was a classic north-south battle, featuring candidates at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Berkley, the daughter of a Las Vegas waiter who got his job with union help, embraced far-reaching health care reform, stimulus spending to jump-start the economy, and a social agenda favorable to same-sex marriage and young illegal immigrants seeking citizenship.
Heller, whose father was a Carson City auto mechanic, found a conservative voice while running for Congress in 2006 but grew more moderate in his bid for the U.S. Senate. He opposed strategies that involved more federal spending that would deepen the deficit, voting against what he called taxpayer bailouts of banks and automakers.
The contest was expensive but not a record. Berkley and Heller combined probably will spend about $20 million. Heller spent $7.5 million while Berkley spent $10.4 million as of Oct. 17.
Stephens Media Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this story. Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.