Nevada is Donald Trump country.
As the GOP presidential front-runner continues to build momentum, he casts a shadow across the down-ballot races across the U.S., including congressional races in Nevada.
Trump was the favored pick of Nevada Republicans in the party’s Feb. 23 caucus, winning with a 22-point margin. He has won an increasing number of states while moving closer to locking down the nomination. The anti-establishment candidate is seemingly immune from jeopardizing his political fortunes even after controversial comments about undocumented immigrants, women and other candidates.
The unusual nature of the presidential race could impact Republican efforts to hold onto congressional seats already considered vulnerable to a loss, including Nevada’s 4th Congressional District.
Democrats hope to pick up the seat of U.S. Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev. The freshman congressman was elected in 2014 in the red wave that propelled Republicans to power in both chambers of the Nevada statehouse. The 4th District encompasses North Las Vegas and six rural counties.
The seat is one of a handful across the nation that are considered open to a Republican loss, in part because of its Democratic voter registration edge, Hardy’s relatively narrow win, and the heavier turnout that comes with a presidential election year.
Nearly 30 percent of the district’s population is Hispanic, and Democrats say Trump’s rhetoric, including calling undocumented immigrants “rapists,” will further mobilize those voters.
For Democrats, it’s a no-brainer: Point out Trump’s most controversial statements and try to tie him to GOP candidates in other races, such as U.S. Senate and House contests. It’s a tactic they hope will alienate broad groups of the electorate from Republican candidates, including Latinos, women and minorities.
For Republicans, it’s a delicate balance. Do they back Trump or reject him if he gets the nomination? A burning question: Will the anti-establishment fervor Trump has whipped up translate into heavier turnout in Nevada’s congressional primaries and a rejection of traditional Republican candidates? If the candidates try to ignore Trump, Democrats will pounce, pointing out their silence on the question of endorsing the billionaire
The pool of Democratic candidates so far includes Lucy Flores, a former state assemblywoman; Ruben Kihuen, a state senator; philanthropist Susie Lee; and John Oceguera, a former Assembly speaker. The two-week filing period starts Monday.
Trump’s rise has shown that many voters are unhappy with the status quo on both sides of the political spectrum. But at this point, gauging the impact is difficult.
“The problem is, I don’t have any data on what the Donald Trump effect is,” said a Republican operative unaffiliated with any campaign. “We have no idea what that would look like nationally or more specifically the 4th District.”
If Trump becomes the nominee, the Republican operative said, “We will be trying to figure that out.”
Hardy has endorsed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in the presidential race. Hardy also has told National Journal he would support Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee.
Ross Hemminger, Hardy’s campaign manager, said Hardy is focused on being a congressman representing his district and that’s more important even than his re-election bid.
Republicans say Trump has a brand that is separate from the GOP.
“His brand is so unique,” the operative said. “Donald Trump is Donald Trump. No one looks at Donald Trump and thinks he’s a Republican.”
DEMS: TRUMP WOULD INCREASE TURNOUT
Still, there are concerns, though they aren’t fatal flaws for congressional candidates. For example, if Trump says something offensive to women, it could be used by female Democratic candidates running against male GOP candidates.
Dave Chase, campaign manager for Kihuen, noting Hardy’s willingness to support Trump if he’s the nominee, said: “He has to answer for how he’s going to support someone so extreme.”
In a statement, Lee said: “Cresent Hardy is right to be worried about Donald Trump becoming the GOP nominee. They have way too much in common for Hardy to be able to run away from Trump and I believe voters are smart enough to reject Trump’s hateful rhetoric.”
Flores said Trump being on the ballot would increase turnout — in a positive way because voters in a general election will reject him.
“I just don’t see someone like Trump being successful with a general American electorate,” Flores said. “In terms of turnout, I would think that it would be a positive effect because you are going to have people turn out and reject that type of campaign and that type of person.”
“If Trump is the nominee on the Republican side, that will drive Democrats to the ballot box, so I think that’s a good thing,” Oceguera said, cautioning that it’s difficult for anyone to predict the exact impact of a Trump run in the general election.
OTHER FACTORS IN PLAY
Republicans both within and and outside of Hardy’s campaign say he has a path to victory for another two-year term.
“The last cycle, nobody gave him a chance and he prevailed, so they’re welcome to think and say whatever they want to on the other side,” Hemminger said. “The fact is, people in this district like him.”
The congressman’s campaign stresses that Hardy is not a lifelong politician and is not an outsider to the district, having lived in the Mesquite area all his life. They also point to his accomplishments, which include working on the passed highway bill that included language for the planned Interstate 11 extension between Las Vegas and Reno and supporting protections to rangeland and natural resources in a way that also allows ranching.
Trump aside, the congressional district’s voter registration figures for Democrats and prior history make the seat winnable in the eyes of Democrats. Those are bigger factors than Trump.
In 2014, Hardy beat Democratic incumbent Steven Horsford, winning with 48.5 percent to Horsford’s 45.8 percent. Hardy’s margin was 3,622 votes.
In 2012, 54 percent of voters in the district cast ballots for President Barack Obama when he ran for re-election.
Democrats say that the margin they lost by in 2014 can be overcome, given the heavier voter turnout in a presidential election year and their party’s 9-point edge in voter registration for the district. The district had 130,657 registered Democrats and 102,873 registered Republicans in February. Overall, 308,345 voters are in the district, with the remaining 74,815 voters being unaffiliated or belonging to a third party.
“With higher voter turnout in a presidential year, an accidental congressman like Cresent Hardy who constantly puts his foot in his mouth is going to struggle against any of our Democratic candidates this fall,” said Stewart Boss, press secretary of the Nevada State Democratic Party.
Democratic campaigns have been raising money, canvassing voters, making calls and preparing for the June 14 primary.
The first ballots of the general election will be cast on Oct. 22, when early voting starts. It lasts through Nov. 4.
Hardy’s campaign isn’t expecting an easy battle leading up to the Nov. 8 general election.
“He’s running hard,” Hemminger said.
Contact Ben Botkin at email@example.com or 702-387-2904. Find him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1