One hundred days before early voting begins in Nevada, the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley kicked into sudden, summer-hot overdrive on Thursday.
On the defensive over a House ethics investigation, Berkley launched an aggressive TV ad campaign to defend her efforts to save a kidney transplant center linked to her physician husband's business. And she went on the attack in her two new campaign commercials, slamming Heller for twice voting to "end Medicare as we know it."
Acting just as aggressively, Heller publicly challenged Berkley to seven televised debates statewide, with the two candidates already agreeing to one on Sept. 27 in Reno. Heller's move to face off with Berkley in what his campaign called a "robust debate schedule" through the fall came a day after his campaign began airing a quick-hit TV ad to let voters know Berkley is accused of helping line her wealthy husband's pockets.
"Shelley Berkley took care of herself. She got caught," says the Heller ad. It notes a watchdog group listed Berkley as one of the "most corrupt members of Congress" for not disclosing her husband's ties to the University Medical Center kidney transplant program and for promoting bills to help kidney doctors.
The escalating ad wars and Monday's announcement of a formal House Ethics Committee investigation come as voters outside Clark County are getting to know Berkley, a Democratic seven-term congresswoman representing urban Las Vegas. The Republican Heller, a former congressman, represented all of Nevada outside Clark County until he was appointed last year to the Senate to replace scandal-plagued U.S. Sen. John Ensign.
The persistent ethics cloud is a blow to Berkley's campaign. But Democrats led by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have expressed confidence she'll remain competitive in the close race, boosted by a Democratic voter registration drive aimed at helping President Barack Obama win re-election on Nov. 6.
"I think this is going to be fine for Shelley," Reid said Thursday in a conference call with reporters to mark 100 days before a two-week early voting period begins Oct. 20. "She's a terrific candidate who fights for Nevadans. And certainly she should fight for these people who are in danger of dying."
Asked whether Berkley should have disclosed her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, could benefit from her kidney advocacy, Reid said that in Southern Nevada "everyone there knows she's married to a nephrologist."
"I think you'll find she didn't violate any rules, whatsoever," Reid said when pressed if casual knowledge would pass House ethics muster. "You can look into this more - I'm sure they will - but I don't think there's a problem."
BERKLEY ON THE ATTACK
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Berkley is smart to go on the attack and shift the focus back to Heller. She has no choice and can't let Heller define her as corrupt, Herzik said.
"That's a classic defense strategy," he said. "You say the attack is a political smear job. Her problem, though, is Dean Heller didn't bring this up. And it was a unanimous vote by Democrats and Republicans to further the investigation. That undercuts her argument that it's a partisan attack, that those mean old Republicans are out to get me."
The Nevada Republican Party filed the initial complaint after the New York Times laid out Berkley's advocacy for the kidney center and doctors such as her husband in a front-page story in September 2011. But the House Ethics Committee voted unanimously to proceed with an investigation, suggesting no political motive behind the probe.
The new Berkley ad, however, blames the state GOP for her ethics problems and slams Heller for "actually attacking Berkley for trying to stop cuts to Medicare coverage for hundreds of thousands of patients nationwide."
The 30-second spot mentions an editorial in the Las Vegas Sun that said Berkley's advocacy "wasn't driven for personal gain. It was aimed at helping Nevadans." That echoes what Berkley has said.
The Berkley ad then pivots to slam Heller for twice voting "to end Medicare as we know it," a popular Democratic charge against Republicans who want to privatize the program for younger workers.
"You decide who's for you," the ad's narrator says at the end.
Berkley also released a second new TV ad on the Medicare issue that focuses on Heller's Medicare votes as well.
Heller has not commented on Berkley's ethics problems, letting his attack ad speak for itself. The Heller campaign accused Berkley of trying to mislead voters with her ethics defense ads.
"How about the truth, congresswoman?" said Chandler Smith, spokesman for Heller's campaign. "For the first time since 2009, a bipartisan committee of five Democrats and five Republicans unanimously decided Congresswoman Berkley's actions required a formal investigation on the basis of a nonpartisan report.
"No matter how much she may want to distract from her own problems, Congresswoman Berkley's ethics troubles do not give her a free pass to lie to Nevadans," Smith added.
The two camps also tussled over Heller's debate challenge.
In a letter to Berkley campaign manager Jessica Mackler, top Heller aide Mac Abrams proposed two debates a month until early voting: three in Las Vegas; one each in Reno, Carson City and Elko; and an appearance on the nationally televised "Meet the Press," which has hosted debates on Senate races of significance.
Berkley's campaign said more debates are likely, even as a spokeswoman criticized Heller for publicizing the challenge instead of negotiating a schedule behind the scenes.
"We have already agreed to one debate, and we plan on agreeing to more," said Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for the Berkley campaign. "We look forward to a serious discussion with the Heller campaign on scheduling these debates once he's done with these political stunts."
The Heller-Berkley contest is expected to be as nasty as the 2010 race between Reid and his GOP challenger, Sharron Angle, a former assemblywoman and tea party favorite who lost to him by nearly 6 percentage points. Heller, as the appointed incumbent and experienced campaigner, won't be as easy to beat, however.
The two 2012 Senate candidates will have plenty of money to spend as well. Each raised more than $1 million apiece in the past three months, according to financial reports released on Thursday.
Berkley added $1.5 million in Senate contributions from April through June, giving the Democrat a $4 million balance in her campaign fund.
Heller's campaign said he raised $1.2 million. The Republican has $4.45 million on hand.
Combined, the veteran Nevada political leaders have raised $12 million, still far off the pace from the $53 million raised in 2010 by Reid and Angle.
Berkley has raised a total of $6.75 million and Heller $5.21 million to date, according to their latest reports.
Berkley spent $1.9 million over the latest three-month period, almost double Heller's $1 million.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC. Contact Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702 387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.