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Ethics inquiry rivets attention, but it probably won’t decide Senate race

For U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, this has to be as good as it gets.

Talk about a strong week. Heller and his rising campaign are feasting on the news Monday that the House Ethics Committee voted to appoint an investigative subcommittee to gather facts to determine whether his opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley, violated the Code of Official Conduct when she advocated on behalf of issues in which her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, “had a financial interest.”

Lehrner is a successful kidney specialist with a contract at University Medical Center and investments in a dialysis clinic. As a congresswoman, Berkley has forwarded 114 pieces of health legislation, including several that have had an impact on kidney dialysis, treatment and transplant in Southern Nevada. She also penned advocacy letters to colleagues in which she didn’t disclose her husband’s professional specialty.

Although she has claimed that positively everyone knows her husband’s professional specialty, she surely also knows that’s not how the game works. And so she will have to ride out an ethics probe.

The appointed Heller’s odds of winning election increased when the committee voted to investigate further. The news all but guarantees this pot will boil through Election Day and provide a seemingly endless supply of political fodder for Heller’s allies to paint Berkley as an ethically bankrupt representative undeserving of a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Lately, Heller has been winning the horse-race punditry and metaphor war in the political media. Reporters and opinion-makers from here to Washington seem ready to write off Berkley’s candidacy.

For some Heller is a lion, Berkley an ethically hamstrung zebra. Cue the nature photographers, and be sure to use plenty of slow motion to show the final painful moments of her Senate run. Hide your eyes, Marlin Perkins.

Berkley’s critics are mesmerized by the prospect of the investigation, and their excitement is reflected in some of the media coverage of the subject. It is a kill shot, a death knell, a 20-penny nail in the Berkley campaign coffin.

But is it? The investigation obviously hurts her candidacy, but does it cripple it?

Sensing she needed a hug, perhaps time after a tough week to heal fresh wounds, Berkley’s circle of Democratic supporters gathered Friday for a pep rally.

There was former congresswoman and current 1st Congressional District candidate Dina Titus, who enthused, “Shelley’s been a leader on making Nevada the clean energy jobs capital of the country, has been a champion for women and working families, and has been a staunch advocate for Nevada’s veterans and seniors, and that’s why we need her to continue fighting for Nevada for years to come in the U.S. Senate.”

Add to that embrace some rousing endorsements from former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, former state Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, state Sen. and good soldier Ruben Kihuen, state Assembly members Elliot Anderson and Lucy Flores, and veteran Leo Dunson, and you have a reliable circle of support. Perhaps Berkley is stinging more than she’d like us to think.

With due respect to the hard-charging Democrat, and at the risk of interrupting Heller’s Victory-in-July party, I believe the outcome of this race will hinge on far more important issues than the kidney punch.

First, there’s Nevada’s economy and dizzying unemployment rate. Then there’s the question of whether the Obama administration can rekindle excitement in young voters along with his loyal backers in organized labor.

And don’t forget the hard-to-measure impact of Nevada’s Latino voters.

While her enemies can shout about her ethics, her allies can respond with a long list of services and programs she’s fought for on behalf of her constituents.

In the end, this isn’t a nature documentary. It’s Nevada, not the African savanna. The incumbent isn’t a lion, but a paint-by-numbers Republican with a lot of potential but few major accomplishments in Washington.

I still say the GOP’s best argument is the simplest one: the state of the economy. Pound the pocketbook issues, and Heller may prevail.

Or, his camp can obsess on the ethics of an issue involving kidney disease treatment in a state with a sorry history of frontier medicine.

If Heller’s political team isn’t careful, it might look back and remember the second week of July was as good as it got.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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