Updated June 20, 2020 - 8:16 pm
Combat metaphors are often unavoidable during election season, but the emergence of a 6-foot-7-inch, 300-pound former professional wrestler as the Republican candidate for one of the West’s most highly coveted congressional seats makes it all too easy.
The proverbial corners in the contest for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District were set this week, as challenger Dan “Big Dan” Rodimer easily claimed the Republican nomination against incumbent Democrat Rep. Susie Lee after contested primaries.
The Republicans’ congressional arm got it started right away.
“His big personality and fighter mentality will win over Nevada voters,” the National Republican Congressional Committee said in its opening memo.
Metaphors aside, Lee enters her first re-election bid with nearly every measurable advantage.
She has incumbency and a clear fundraising advantage. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 3rd District by more than 15,000 active registered voters.
In last week’s primary, Lee earned nearly as many votes (49,223) as the entire Republican field (50,469), despite having two challengers. In all, Democrats captured nearly 55 percent of the primary votes — up from 52 percent in 2018 and 45 percent in 2016.
This will also not be her first contested campaign. After finishing third in the 4th District’s 2016 Democratic primary, she comfortably beat Republican Danny Tarkanian in 2018 to capture the 3rd District seat, which was again heavily targeted by both parties.
“I’m battle-tested,” Lee said in an interview Saturday. “I’ve been through a tough race before, and I know what it’s going to take to win the seat.”
But Rodimer enters the race having already defeated a better-funded, more established politician days ago in former Nevada Treasurer Dan Schwartz.
“We were down 10 points in the polls when ballots went out,” Rodimer said in an interview Saturday. “And in what — six or eight weeks? We won by 23 points. Now, I worked my butt off, but that’s the real story. I’m the comeback kid, here.”
Republicans and their allies did not take 2019 off in campaigning against Lee.
In December, the American Action Network poured $500,000 into two ads targeting Lee on her vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Lee’s district narrowly supported Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Impeachment will continue to be a defense point for Lee, who will also try to deflect attempts to tie her to more liberal and well-known Democratic congressional members, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“They do that no matter what I do and what I show,” Lee said.
Lee has stressed her moderate views early on in the campaign, saying she is consistently rated as one of Congress’ most bipartisan lawmakers. She has pushed bills on child care expansion and protection for college students defrauded by for-profit universities with bipartisan support.
The Lugar Center, which rates lawmakers based on how often their bills get bipartisan backing and how often they back bills from the other party, ranked Lee as the 103rd-most bipartisan Congress member in 2019. She finished 53rd among Democrats and tops within Nevada’s delegation, which her campaign stressed is difficult to accomplish as a freshman still introducing herself to other members.
More recently, Lee has been targeted over her push for the federal government to make Paycheck Protection Program loans available for small gaming businesses. Republicans allege Lee acted unethically, as husband Dan Lee’s company, Full House Resorts, benefited from the change.
A mobile billboard alleging Lee secured $5.6 million in taxpayer money for her husband’s business drove through Lee’s district and the Strip on Thursday. The billboard was paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC.
Rodimer said Lee had forgotten about working Nevadans while using her position to “enrich her own pocket” with this money.
Lee slammed the attacks Saturday, saying she put politics aside to give 40,000 Nevada businesses a lifeline during an unprecedented crisis.
“I worked with the entire bipartisan delegation to get my constituents a paycheck,” Lee said, adding that she since has voted for total transparency within the Paycheck Protection Program.
“Republicans and Democrats joined me in this fight, and partisan hacks funded by shadowy super PACs are attacking me for it,” she said. “That’s why people are frustrated with Washington. It’s deceptive. It’s cynical. And I’m not going to let it stop me.”
Rodimer has also had to parry attacks for the past few months.
Schwartz released a series of ads calling him a violent criminal, stemming from a 2010 battery arrest in Florida and several subsequent assault accusations that did not lead to arrests. According to court records, Rodimer entered into deferred prosecution and completed an anger management course in exchange for the charge being dropped in 2012.
“The smear campaign didn’t work,” Rodimer said. “People want to hear what you’re going to do for them, and they want their voice restored here in Nevada.”
He added that he will handle any future reference to the arrest in the same way: focusing on voter issues and highlighting his unique background. He said that he is a small-business owner, law school graduate, and husband and father of five — soon to be six — children and that he serves on charity and school advisory boards.
Following the money
With COVID-19 likely to cripple in-person campaigning, Southern Nevadans’ TV screens, mailboxes and cellphones probably will be popular destinations for Lee, Rodimer and their allies.
Lee heads into November with more than $2 million in the bank as of late May, while Rodimer, having spent more than $500,000 to fend off Schwartz, had about $220,000 left.
But the intrigue lies in how much either party and their respective allies will spend on the race.
The Congressional Leadership Fund has banked about $1 million in future Las Vegas advertising buys to potentially target Lee or support Rodimer.
The House Majority PAC, its counterpart on the Democratic side, has spent $6.6 million in local advertising this cycle — including a $2.2 million reservation to be used in support of Lee or 4th District Rep. Steven Horsford if needed.
Lee has denounced the “dark money” political donations from certain nonprofit groups who don’t have to disclose their own donors — money that has been used to criticize her, including the American Action Network’s December advertisements.
But Lee has received support from similar organizations, including some $642,000 in local advertising purchases from Democratic Party-aligned House Majority Forward.
Asked if she viewed this as a necessary evil given the money spent against her, Lee said that she supported a House bill to remove dark money from politics and she has continued to work hard to raise her own money and run her own campaign.
Rodimer was undeterred by the fundraising advantage, once again pointing to his defeat of Schwartz, who mostly self-funded and outspent him by nearly $200,000.
The general election will differ from the primaries in that the 3rd District’s 110,000 nonpartisan voters, as well as tens of thousands of third-party members, will have a say.
It’s unclear what effect Independent American Edward S. Bridges II, Libertarian Steve Brown and nonpartisan Gary Crispin — all of whom moved on to the general election unopposed — will have on the race. However, Independent Americans and Libertarians have traditionally pulled votes from conservatives who might otherwise have supported a Republican if not given the choice.
Whether the top of the ticket — Trump’s re-election bid against presumptive nominee former Vice President Joe Biden — will be a major factor in the contested 3rd District also remains to be seen.
“It’s clearly going to have an impact across the country, but I am going to continue to campaign on my experience, accomplishments and 25 years of deep ties to this community,” Lee said. Before running for Congress, she was the founding director of the After-School All Stars and president of Communities in Schools, which works to prevent students from dropping out.
She said Rodimer showed during the primary he would march in lockstep with Trump and the Republican Party.
Rodimer said he supported the president and, in turn, accused Lee of allegiance to Pelosi. He stressed his primary goal in running is providing an independent voice for the district.
These answers seem to provide a clear blueprint for the next four months of campaigning in the tough swing district: Attempt to tie your opponent to that candidate’s polarizing leader while proclaiming your own independence.