RENO - Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley plans to spend a lot of time campaigning for the Senate in Washoe County during the three-week congressional recess in August, trying to break through on Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller's home Northern Nevada turf.
She already has been traveling up north as often as possible. On Saturday, Berkley attended the annual Washoe Democratic Party picnic. On the air, she already has spent $500,000 in TV ads around Reno to introduce herself to folks who may not know the seven-term congresswoman from Southern Nevada.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama were both in Reno last week, too, addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention and sparring over national security.
On Sunday, the Romney campaign opened its Reno "victory office." And the former Massachusetts governor is scheduled to be in Reno again Friday for a couple of private fundraisers, including one where GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval may join him at a $25,000-a-person luncheon.
So far, more than $4 million worth of political TV ads have aired in the Reno market.
Why all the stepped-up political activity?
Washoe is the battleground county in the battleground state of Nevada. Rural Nevada is safe Republican terrain. Clark County is where 70 percent of the state population lives and where more Democrats thrive.
So it's Washoe County where the political wrestling is happening, a swing county in a swing state.
"It's critically important," said Ryan Erwin, an adviser to the Romney campaign in Nevada, who listened to the candidate's VFW speech. "To boil it down, Washoe is probably the biggest target area of the state."
In 2008, Obama won Washoe on his way to his Nevada victory and the presidency, gaining 55 percent of the vote versus 46 percent for GOP presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
In 2012, Romney must beat Obama in Washoe to have a shot at winning Nevada and the White House. That is what former President George W. Bush did in his two successful Nevada campaigns, winning Washoe with a little more 50 percent of the vote in 2004 and just under 50 percent in 2000.
James Smack, vice chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, said it comes down to this: For Republicans, Washoe is a must-win county while Democrats can afford to lose it and still win Nevada.
"If a Republican is going to win the state, he has to win the 16 counties that are not named Clark," said Smack, who also is the incoming Republican National Committeeman for Nevada.
Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, didn't pick up Washoe in 1992 or in 1996 but won Nevada by running up the voting score in Clark County, according to election records.
That is the formula Berkley is counting on - keeping the race close in Washoe and scoring big in Clark.
"She's doing the right thing by spending a lot of time up here," said Jill Derby, a longtime friend of Berkley's who served with her on the University of Nevada Board of Regents. "Shelley has personal warmth, and she really connects well with people. We're a smaller community up North, and we like to know our candidates."
Derby ran against Heller during his first congressional race in 2006 and beat him in Washoe County. But she lost the House contest for the 2nd Congressional District, which covered all of the state except most of Clark County. Two years later, Heller easily won re-election and defeated Derby in Washoe too. He was appointed last year to replace U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who resigned, and is battling Berkley to keep his Senate seat.
But Berkley is no Derby, who lives in Douglas County and is a well-known quantity up North.
Popular in Southern Nevada, Berkley has a New York accent and a flashy Vegas style that doesn't sit well with some of Washoe's more down-home residents. Up North, residents enjoy a good rodeo or chili cook-off and bask in the glory of the Truckee River, Lake Tahoe and the Sierras. They tend to be more conservative and take life a little slower than on the neon-flooded Strip, where Berkley once worked as a cocktail waitress.
Berkley also is running her get-to-know-you campaign in Washoe in the shadow of a House ethics investigation.
An ethics panel is looking into whether her advocacy to save the kidney transplant center at the University Medical Center and to promote kidney-related bills helped her physician husband profit financially. Dr. Larry Lehrner is a nephrologist who has a business relationship with the kidney transplant center that Berkley didn't disclose.
"The investigation likely does not do much damage to Berkley in her Las Vegas-based congressional district," a Cook Political Report on the Senate race said. "Instead, the ethics investigation will be more problematic in the northern part of the state where voters don't know her and are often skeptical of Las Vegas-area politicians."
The Cook Political Report released Thursday kept the race as a toss-up but said the ethics investigation "transformed what was otherwise a very level playing field and made it a little more uphill for Berkley."
Berkley's strategy is to fire up her base of Democratic supporters to turn out in force up north Nov. 6 to keep her from being swamped in Washoe, where Republicans have a narrow voter registration advantage. If Berkley keeps the race close in Washoe, she is counting on Democrats in populous Clark County - and on Obama's coattails - to carry her across the finish line to a narrow victory.
"Is Washoe an important county in Nevada that either party has a shot at winning? You bet," a Nevada Democratic strategist said. "Is it the be-all, end-all to win statewide races? That's something that's been way overblown by pundits and the media. The fact is that Democrats don't need to win Washoe to win on Election Day. They just need to do OK."
To win, Democrats are targeting reliable base voters such as blacks and particularly Hispanics, who made up 15 percent of the electorate in 2010. This year, the Democratic target is 18 percent Latino voters.
The Hispanic vote could make up for any weakness Berkley has in Washoe. Republicans have had a hard time winning over Latinos in Nevada, largely because of the GOP's immigration policies.
In 2010, popular GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, the state's first Hispanic governor, easily won election but only drew 33 percent of the Latino vote while most backed Rory Reid, his Democratic opponent.
Although Sen. Harry Reid won Washoe by more than 5 percentage points, he got so much support from Latinos and Clark County - which he won by 13 points - that he could have lost Washoe and still won re-election.
Clark becomes more important in presidential election years, too, with increased turnout helping Democrats.
In 2008, Clark accounted for 67.3 percent of the electorate compared with the 2010 midterm election when Clark voters accounted for 64.6 percent of the electorate. That bump of nearly 3 points could make the difference in close races.
Heller has the opposite problem from Berkley. He is not as well-known in Southern Nevada, although he represented all of the state and parts of Clark County when he was in the House for several terms.
Heller's path to victory includes overwhelming Berkley in GOP-heavy rural Nevada, beating her handily in Washoe County and getting at least 44 percent to 45 percent of the vote in Clark County.
The senator has been spending most Fridays in Clark County and Saturdays mostly in Reno or other areas of the state on his weekends off while the Senate is in session. His campaign said he will continue his statewide push.
"Dean plans to be in each part of Nevada in August," said Chandler Smith, a campaign spokesman. "It is familiar territory for him. Unlike Congresswoman Berkley, spending time in every corner of the state is not a new strategy."
Republicans in Washoe County, knowing they could prove vital in the 2012 election, have been working hard to raise money and register voters to keep Southern Nevada from dominating the statewide races.
Patty Wade, a Reno developer, is hosting the Aug. 3 fundraisers for Romney, including one at her Eagle's Nest home. She expects 125 to 150 people with top donors giving $25,000 a person. It could hit the $1 million mark.
"I think the presidential race and the senatorial race are going to be lost or won in Washoe County," Wade said in an interview Friday. "There's a much bigger population base in Southern Nevada, but you're seeing a lot more action here because people understand Washoe County and the rurals will make the difference in these races."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.