WASHINGTON — Republicans on Friday pressed an attack on Democratic House hopeful Erin Bilbray, seeking to escalate controversy over an awkward remark the first-time Nevada candidate made this week on a statewide interview show.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, the highest-ranking woman in the Republican leadership, charged Bilbray with pushing a “bogus” message that incumbent Rep. Joe Heck is anti-woman and anti-American.
McMorris Rogers, who is from Washington state, demanded Bilbray “immediately apologize,” echoing other Republicans and conservative activists. The calls came as Bilbray’s manager sought to clarify what she said on television.
In a campaign still more than a year out from Election Day, the dust-up is a sign of the high stakes and attention being focused on the 3rd Congressional District. The suburbs of Las Vegas are hosting what is expected to be the most high-profile race for federal office in the state.
The ongoing controversy capped a week during which Bilbray announced her campaign team but also provided an opening to foes on one of the first efforts to raise her profile.
Bilbray, the daughter of former Rep. Jim Bilbray of Las Vegas, launched her campaign in July. For the most part it has been low-key as she focused on raising money and assembling staff and consultants.
While Heck maintains a wide financial advantage, Bilbray’s initial fundraising quarter exceeded Heck’s by $10,000. This week she announced what she called a “formidable” team that includes veterans of national campaigns.
But at other times it has been one step forward, one step back for the first-time candidate.
A rollout of her campaign website was stalled when a glitch left unclear where she stood on gun issues. She eventually said she was for controls that keep weapons away from “criminals and the dangerously mentally ill,” but is against a ban on so-called assault weapons.
A trip to Washington earlier this month coincided with the government shutdown that caused the cancellation of at least one of her fundraising events.
And now, a long-anticipated interview with pundit Jon Ralston on his “Ralston Reports” television show Wednesday appears to have caused her a detour, at least temporarily.
In a key segment of the show, Bilbray took offense at a fundraising email Heck issued on the day she entered the race. It called her a “liberal activist, fundraiser and Democratic spin-doctor.”
“I announced on July 1 with a very positive message about my family, my values, and I was just actually surprised by the negative tone that he immediately took this far out,” said Bilbray, a political trainer who established Emerge Nevada, an organization that trains women for politics.
“We don’t have enough women in politics, and the reason they don’t want to get involved is because of the negativity that Joe Heck expressed on that first day,” she said. “The classy thing to do, the gentlemanly thing, to do that early is to say I welcome somebody to participate in politics, and he didn’t do it.
“As a woman you don’t come out of the box and attack your opponent this far out,” Bilbray said. “I am a woman, there is no getting around it. I think he was wrong and it discourages people from participating in the process, and that is wrong and that is un-American.”
Republicans pounced. They charged Bilbray was pinning an “un-American” label on Heck, an Iraq war veteran and a colonel in the Army Reserve. They demanded she take it back.
Bilbray’s campaign manager, Bradley Mayer, sought to clarify the comment the next day. He told the Las Vegas Sun in a statement that Bilbray did not call Heck “un-American,” but rather was describing his campaign’s email as an “un-American” way to discourage people from seeking office.
The Review-Journal was unable to obtain a copy of the clarification despite several requests to Bilbray’s campaign on Friday, and also did not get a response to a request to discuss the candidate’s week.
Bilbray’s TV appearance came hours after she announced her campaign staff, including pollster Mark Mellman, who had worked on campaigns for Sen. Harry Reid and numerous other Democrats.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.