Here's your October surprise: When no one was watching, Nevada's 3rd Congressional District tilted Republican.
Results of the first nonpartisan public poll in seven weeks show Republican challenger Joe Heck has opened up a 10 percentage point lead over incumbent Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal/8NewsNow poll reported 53 percent of respondents prefer Heck and 43 percent Titus.
A similar survey concluded Sept. 9 with Titus leading Heck 47 to 43 percent, suggesting while the political press was focused on the high-profile U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican challenger Sharron Angle, the 3rd District race was shifting in Heck's favor.
Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the survey, said the pro-Heck shift was similar to late-breaking tilts toward Democrats in previous cycles.
"This is the kind of time when these things start to happen," Coker said. "October is usually the month when you see the surge."
In the September poll, 46 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Titus, 41 percent unfavorable and 13 percent neutral.
The poll concluded Wednesday showed 43 percent of respondents viewed Titus favorably, 49 percent unfavorably and 8 percent neutral.
David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, attributed the shift to a boatload of outside money pouring into the district to influence voters' opinions.
An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics updated Wednesday showed $6.8 million has been spent by outside groups, more than any other Congressional District in the nation except for the 7th District in Michigan where $6.9 million was spent.
"These numbers here show you the importance of that outside money, to drive up her negatives," Damore said. "These undecided or soft supporters are going to break against the incumbent."
The new poll is the first to show Heck with a lead beyond the margin of error, suggesting Titus might fall victim to an electorate looking to blame incumbent Democrats for the bad economy and woeful unemployment rate.
"A similar story could be written in dozens of districts across the country," said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report. "I think that is a trend and not something specific to Dina Titus."
A poll in late September by a Democratic pollster showed Heck with a 4 percentage point lead with independents trending toward the challenger.
The latest Review-Journal survey, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, showed 57 percent of independents chose Heck and 39 percent Titus.
Heck also held Republicans 90 to 8 while Titus' advantage among Democrats was 79 to 14.
Heck's advantage among men was 60 to 35 while Titus' advantage with women, a demographic she has worked hard to cultivate, was 51 to 46.
The Mason-Dixon poll of 400 3rd Congressional District residents included early voters who had cast ballots along with those likely to vote and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The Mason-Dixon turnout model assumed Republicans would vote at a high enough rate to close the Democrats' 6 percent registration advantage.
In 2008, a Democratic year, Titus knocked off Republican Jon Porter by about 5 percentage points while Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama cruised to a 12 point victory in the district. Porter maintained a slight lead on Titus until the closing weeks when the Democrat passed him in the latter stages of the campaign.
"Titus was the beneficiary of anti-incumbent trends two years ago, but now she is going to be the victim of it," Coker said.
Titus spokesman Andrew Stoddard said the Mason-Dixon model forecasting equal turnout between Democrats and Republicans in the district is flawed.
"We continue to see strong support for Dina on the phones, at the doors, and in the community and these poll numbers do not reflect what we are seeing and hearing, nor do they accurately reflect turnout during early vote," Stoddard said.
Early voting turnout results from the 3rd District show Democrats made up 43.4 percent of the vote, Republicans were 40 percent and nonpartisans, a segment among which Heck has a sizable polling lead, were 17 percent of the total.
In raw numbers, approximately 5,400 more Democrats voted than Republicans, with Election Day voters yet to come.
Titus is on television with hard-hitting ads that accuse Heck, a physician, of having "no integrity" based on complaints from two Metropolitan Police Department officers who complained the department denied their workers compensation claims. Heck is the department's medical consultant who reviews such claims.
Heck's campaign is working hard to make sure voters blame Titus for an unemployment rate that's close to 15 percent in Las Vegas and other lousy economic indicators.
They're both trying to turn out as many of their own voters as possible.
During a speech Thursday to the Spring Valley Republican Women in Las Vegas, Heck implored attendees who hadn't yet voted to do so as soon as possible and encourage friends to join them.
"The time for stump speeches is far over. We're done," Heck told the audience. "You have got to get out to vote."
Betty Rumford, president of the club, took umbrage with the wedge Titus is seeking to drive between Heck and female voters.
Ads from Titus and outside special interest groups have been attacking Heck, a former state senator, for a 2007 vote against a mandate that would have forced insurance companies to cover a vaccine for a virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
"I think that is totally misrepresented," Rumford said of the attack on Heck, who attended the event with his wife, Lisa. "Do you think he would do something that would not be good for women when he has a wife and two daughters?"
Titus is spending her time touring the district to drum up enthusiasm for legislation like the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also called the stimulus law.
She's getting help from the Obama administration in the form of visits from Cabinet-level officials, such as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who joined Titus for a small-business tour on Wednesday.
Locke told business owners the duo visited how the stimulus and other bills Titus supported included tax breaks and other incentives for small businesses to create new jobs.
He blamed Republicans for opposing the measures and said if Titus and other Democrats don't return for another term it could undo progress the Obama administration has made toward economic recovery.
"All they care about is embarrassing the president and the administration as opposed to putting the interests of small businesses first and foremost," Locke said.
Titus disputed the suggestion that she and other Democrats are running away from legislation such as the stimulus and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, another law polls show was unpopular in Nevada.
"We haven't run away from any of these issues," she said. "We're bragging about how they can help."
At one stop Titus and Locke bumped into Larry Dyga, owner of an information technology company.
As Locke started singing the praises of Titus, Dyga stopped him.
"You don't have to sell me on this lady," he said.
Dyga said he and many others don't put any stock in the negative ads that blame Titus and the Democrats in Congress for the lousy economy.
"She has been doing well," Dyga told the commerce secretary. "Nobody has been controlling what has been happening the last couple years here."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at email@example.com or 702-477-3861.