A week before the election, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller has maintained a six-point lead over Rep. Shelley Berkley, according to a new poll that suggests Heller will keep his GOP seat unless Democrats get far more Southern Nevada supporters to the polls to overcome voter qualms about the congresswoman's ethics.
Heller was leading Berkley 46 percent to 40 percent in the poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow. Among those who have voted early, Heller was edging his Democratic challenger 47-45. He was smashing Berkley 48-34 among voters who said they planned to cast ballots on Election Day on Tuesday.
The poll showed Berkley didn't get a boost over the past couple of weeks by appearing at campaign rallies in Las Vegas with President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton, who also cut a TV commercial touting Berkley over Heller.
Two weeks ago, a SurveyUSA poll also had Heller leading Berkley 46-40, showing the Senate race hasn't moved as Nevadans stream to the polls for early voting, and with independents now favoring Heller 48-28.
Pollster Jay Leve said Berkley's only chance of defeating Heller is if Democrats outperform voter turnout expectations as they did in 2010 to help U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., beat Republican Sharron Angle. Berkley must do much better in Clark County and be more competitive in Washoe County, Leve said.
"If the Democratic Party turns out the vote for Berkley as it turned out the vote for Reid in 2010, then Berkley may out-perform the numbers here," Leve said. "But our data show Berkley is not as strong a candidate as Reid. We don't see a last-minute surge for her. Heller is in a better position to win, and Berkley is in a weaker position."
Berkley was leading Heller in Las Vegas, 51-42, where she has represented the area in Congress for seven terms. But Heller was edging her out in the rest of Clark County, 43-40. In Washoe County, Heller was leading Berkley 50-37. In the rest of the GOP-leaning state, he was beating her handily, 59-25.
A Carson City native, Heller represented most of Nevada outside Clark County for three terms in Congress before he was appointed to replace U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who resigned amid scandal.
Berkley is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which is looking into whether her physician husband profited from her advocacy on kidney transplant and Medicare issues. The probe was launched in July and could wrap up by year's end, no matter the outcome of the race.
Berkley has said she only had Nevadans' health care in mind when working with Heller to save the kidney transplant center at University Medical Center. She didn't disclose her husband's financial relationship with the center at the time. Separately, she pushed to keep Medicare reimbursement rates high for kidney treatment.
Heller has questioned Berkley's ethics in TV ads and in debates. Outside groups have spent big money painting her as unethical, attacks that polls show have hurt her standing among voters.
Asked who is more ethical, 43 percent of voters in the new poll said Heller; 29 percent said Berkley. That's little changed from two previous SurveyUSA polls in October.
In the new poll, 49 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable opinion of Berkley compared with 30 percent with a favorable opinion, giving her a 19 point negative rating. That's little changed from previous surveys.
Voters were divided on Heller, with 38 percent having a favorable opinion of him and 37 percent unfavorable, which is about where his popularity has been since the summer in the SurveyUSA poll.
Berkley's main attack on Heller has been for his two votes for a GOP plan to change Medicare for future retirees by offering government reimbursement for health care insurance instead of the current coverage. The change wouldn't affect today's Medicare recipients but would kick in later for workers who are younger than 55 and paying into the system. Berkley and other Democrats say the GOP plan would "kill Medicare as we know it."
Nevada voters were split, however, on the question of "who has a better plan for Medicare?" with 38 percent saying Berkley and 38 percent Heller, according to the latest survey.
Berkley has portrayed herself as a fighter for the middle class, while Heller has played up his modest roots, too. She is the daughter of a waiter, and he is the son of an auto mechanic and a school cook.
Again, voters were divided on who would do more for the middle class, with Heller edging Berkley 43-39.
Berkley has had trouble shoring up her Democratic base, according to the poll, with 72 percent of Democrats choosing her over Heller but 16 percent saying they would vote for him. In comparison, Heller was picking up 83 percent of Republicans while Berkley was winning 7 percent of the GOP vote.
Hispanics appeared to be split on Berkley and Heller: He edged his opponent 42-41 among the key voting bloc.
David Damore, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor who has studied the Latino vote in Nevada, said he thinks Berkley is actually picking up about 60 percent of the Hispanic vote, which she needs to win.
Berkley still needs to do much better among key Democratic constituencies, Damore said, especially compared with Obama, who has won over minority groups that could make the difference on Election Day.
"I think she hasn't gotten the credit for what she's done for the Latino community and the unions because there's been so much focusing on the negatives," Damore said. "This has been such a negative race. The candidates haven't said anything positive. You can see voters being turned off."
A big chunk of the voters polled didn't pick Heller or Berkley in the survey.
David Lory VanDerBeek, the Independent American Party candidate, got 6 percent support in the poll. "None of these candidates" picked up 4 percent, and another 4 percent said they were undecided.
In recent days, Heller and Berkley have focused on urging supporters to go the polls. Neither candidate has held major news conferences or big events, playing it safe until Election Day.
"Dean Heller will spend the next several days continuing to meet with as many voters as possible and encouraging all Nevadans to vote," Heller campaign spokeswoman Chandler Smith said in response to the poll.
The Berkley campaign argued that public polling in the Senate race is flawed, as it was two years ago when Mark Mellman was the only pollster to correctly forecast Reid's 6-point win. In mid-October, a Mellman poll released by Berkley's campaign showed her leading Heller 41 percent to 38 percent with 11 percent undecided.
"In 2010, the Las Vegas Review-Journal endorsed Sharron Angle and released a poll days before the election that was biased in Angle's favor by an astonishing 10 points," Berkley campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in response to the new poll. "This year, that same paper endorsed Dean Heller and is releasing an absurd poll, days before the election, with results that no other credible poll is showing - particularly with the Latino vote. Just like two years ago, this is clearly a shameless attempt to influence the election and not report the news."
The SurveyUSA poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 23 through Monday, using a mix of cellphones and landlines and English or Spanish, depending on respondents' choice. The poll surveyed 1,212 likely voters and those who had already voted. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
The male-female mix was 50-50 in the survey. Hispanics accounted for 21 percent of those questioned, although Latinos accounted for about 15 percent of the electorate in the past two elections in Nevada.
Democrats accounted for 43 percent of those surveyed, Republicans 33 percent and independents 23 percent. That roughly matches the party breakdown in Nevada, although there are more Republicans and fewer nonpartisans.
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.