STEPHENS WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON -- Democrats put on the kid gloves to handle Friday's further sinking news about Nevada's economy, while Republicans continued to seek political advantage by tying a new record unemployment rate to Obama administration policies they say are not working.
Heading into Labor Day and the heart of the midterm election season, the state retained its nation's-worst status with a jobless rate at 14.3 percent. Counting people who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work, the overall rate averaged 21.5 percent over the past year, state officials said.
The bad news further complicates the tough landscape for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Dina Titus who are grasping for re-election, some analysts said.
But also, it poses a potential risk for Republican Senate challenger Sharron Angle. If Nevada's economy continues to break down, she might be challenged to put more flesh on how she sees her role to fix it.
And unlike in past months where Nevada's lawmakers have been ensconced on Capitol Hill when unemployment figures were reported, Friday's announcement came while they were back home and making public appearances where they could be called upon to take on the dicey topic.
For Democrats, "this is not good," said Eric Herzik, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "I said several months back that Democrats don't want to be out there campaigning with 10 percent unemployment, or with a rate that is moving up. They need some positive news on the jobs front; it is as simple as that."
The message from Nevada Democrats on Friday: We care and we are doing everything we can to turn it around.
Reid touched on Nevada's unemployment in a speech at a luncheon sponsored by the Latin Chamber of Commerce at the Renaissance Hotel, according to several people who were there.
The Senate majority leader expressed confidence the Senate in September will pass a small business lending and tax break bill that Republicans have blocked this summer, one of the Democrats' showcase bills to create jobs.
He also said the agreement of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe to allow an electricity transmission project through its reservation is an example of projects he is promoting that will help the local economy and pave the state's future in green energy.
Also at the luncheon, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., defended the work of Democrats to enact laws that allow troubled mortgages to be modified, and that provide payroll tax subsidies to companies that pull people off the jobless rolls. The Obama administration said the law that was passed in the spring has played a role in the hiring of 69,000 Nevadans so far.
Separately, Titus acknowledged the jobless numbers underestimate Nevadans' pain. "It just points to the fact everybody has to be focused on jobs," she said.
Meanwhile, Republicans said all fine and good but the state's worsening jobs outlook is evidence that Democrats' efforts to stimulate the economy out of recession through government investment are not bearing fruit.
Republican Sen. John Ensign said Democrats are "spending and spending away the future of our country," while Rep. Dean Heller said Congress "should focus on policies that encourage private sector job growth instead of pushing more government bailouts and reckless spending."
Angle was blunt. "Harry Reid is directly to blame for today's unemployment rates," she said.
Joe Heck, Titus's opponent, said Democratic policies are failing "to provide an environment where we can have sustainable job growth. This Congress lacks strategic vision."
"The Democrats' bind is there is not a whole lot they can do to move (the jobless rate) quickly enough for the election," Herzik said.
But in the most closely watched race between Reid and Angle, continued lagging employment has looming risks for the Republican as well, Herzik said.
Angle's statements during the campaign that a senator should not try to create jobs directly but rather to foster policies that encourage private job growth might be challenged further as the campaign wears on, he said.
"Sharron Angle, if she gets pressed, would have to come up with an answer," Herzik said. "If her statement is that it is not her job to create jobs, then what would she do? The Democrats are in trouble, but it is not as if the Republicans are immune."
Review-Journal writer Benjamin Spillman contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.