CARSON CITY -- If there is going to be a special congressional election late this summer, then someone needs to tell voters.
The first seven people questioned at a capital city park last week were not aware of the Sept. 13 special election between Republican Mark Amodei, Democrat Kate Marshall, Independent American Tim Fasano and independent Helmuth Lehmann.
The four candidates are competing for the 2nd Congressional District seat that became vacant in May when then-Rep. Dean Heller was appointed to the U.S. Senate. The term of office is one year -- the last year of Heller's term.
Just two political signs, both for Amodei, could be found along U.S. Highway 395 between Gardnerville and Carson City, in the heart of the district. But neither Amodei nor any of his Sunset Way neighbors in Carson City had placed any signs in front of their homes.
Reporters on assignment last week in rural Nevada said they saw two Amodei signs near Eureka, three in Ely and two in Elko. No Marshall signs were sighted.
Marshall had to be frustrated Aug. 8 by the turnout for the press conference she scheduled on a sidewalk outside the Social Security Administration office in Reno. Only three reporters showed up. No reporter from KRNV-TV, Channel 4, whose office is across the street from where she spoke, bothered to come to the event.
This doesn't mean the race isn't important. Every ad or statement made by either candidate quickly is challenged by the opposing party's strategists in Washington, D.C., who have shown high interest in the race. Both candidates and their supporters have been clogging up Reno television news programs with ads slamming their opponents.
And it's the first congressional race to be decided since President Barack Obama and both parties in Congress approved a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt ceiling after lots of politicking and rancor, followed by the stock market's latest roller coaster ride. So it's seen nationally as a test of the voters' disgruntlement with Congress and the president.
Scott Gilles, deputy secretary of state for elections, won't hazard a guess on how many of the district's 399,010 active voters will turn out for the election since there never has been a special election for Congress in Nevada history. But campaign sources who requested anonymity told the Review-Journal a 20 percent turnout is probable.
Secretary of State Ross Miller estimated the election will cost counties a combined $1.3 million. That's more than $15 a vote if 80,000 people cast ballots.
Holding an election on an unfamiliar date in September could drive down voting, Gilles acknowledged . Early voting, however, starts Aug. 27.
The 2nd District covers all of Nevada except for the heaviest populated areas of Clark County. Still about 34,000 of the voters live in Clark County, mostly in the Mesquite and Nellis Air Force Base areas and in rural areas south of the Strip. Only Washoe County has more voters in the district than Clark County.
Amodei spokesman Peter DeMarco doesn't concede there is a lack of interest in the race. He said Amodei is working aggressively to end the "awareness deficit" about the election.
James Hallinan, Marshall's spokesman, said both sides know there will not be a high turnout.
"The key is getting people to the polls and Democrats are good at that," he said. "The winner is going to be the party that gets its folks to the polls."
Hallinan said the days when putting up signs was a top priority are over, although supporters are putting up signs for Marshall. There are more effective ways of reaching voters, such as television advertising, he added.
Interest in the race could pick up this week as the candidates hold the first of at least three debates in a nine-day period.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars will host a debate in Reno's Idlewild Park at 7 p.m. Wednesday. No Las Vegas TV broadcast is planned.
WHY SO LITTLE INTEREST?
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, isn't surprised by the lack of interest. He said the Nevada Supreme Court's July 5 decision limiting each major party to a single candidate named by its central committee will depress turnout. The Democrats had wanted a wide-open election, with no limits on the number of major party candidates.
"When it became a race between central committee choices, many people conceded the race to Amodei," Herzik said. There now are about 30,000 more Republicans in the district than Democrats, and no Democrat has ever held the seat.
"It's Amodei's race to lose. The decision took a lot of air out of the balloon, so to speak," he said.
Another reason Herzik doesn't expect a high turnout in the special election is because of voter disgust with politicians.
"They don't know who to blame," he said. "This district is safely Republican. Nevadans don't have high turnouts in elections to begin with and you have a couple of candidates who aren't especially well known. I'm not saying they aren't qualified."
Carson City resident Bill Eernisie, who said he has heard nothing about the congressional election, is one of those disgusted citizens. He said he is so upset with politicians that he wouldn't have voted anyway.
"They are going to do what they are going to do regardless of what I feel," Eernisie said as he ate lunch at a park picnic table. "The economy is terrible compared to a couple of years ago. You have to get lucky or know the right people to get a job."
Another possible reason for the lack of interest in the election is the campaign's rhetoric, Herzik said.
Both major candidates have resorted to hyperbole and stretching the truth in referring to the records of their opponents, he said.
Marshall has hammered Amodei for his state Senate vote in 2003 to raise taxes by more than $800 million, although every member of her own party and most Senate Republicans cast the same vote. Amodei voted against tax increases in 2009. That increase, also $800 million, again was backed by every Democrat and the state Senate Republican leadership.
Conversely, the national Republican Party has been slamming Marshall for the state's highest unemployment rate and nation-leading foreclosures, although these factors are outside the control of a mere state treasurer.
"They are not addressing issues in a meaningful way," Herzik said. "Is Kate a tax-cutting conservative? No. Is she responsible for unemployment? No. Is Mark a tax-and-spend liberal? I don't think so."
Review-Journal reporter Laura Myers contributed to this story. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.