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Deja vu in 4th District primary

Some final election thoughts before Tuesday’s primary vote …

The more I see of Nevada’s 4th Congressional District Republican primary, the more it reminds me of the 1st Congressional District GOP race from two years ago.

In 2010, support for the Tea Party movement and opposition to the stimulus and ObamaCare had local conservatives fired up. So much, in fact, that some GOP stalwarts actually believed Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley had become vulnerable in her bulletproof 1st District. Eight Republicans entered that primary, but only two had resources: Michele Fiore, who enjoyed the backing and fundraising help of state party leaders, and newcomer Craig Lake, who put more than $300,000 of his own money into the campaign.

Fiore and Lake went after each other. Each promised to mount a strong run against Berkley. And when all the votes were counted that June, both Fiore and Lake had lost. Local veteran and perennial candidate Ken Wegner won with 27 percent of the vote almost solely on name recognition from his failed 1st District campaigns in 2006 and 2008, and with support from fellow ex-military members. Fiore wound up with 22 percent of the vote, and Lake took third with 20 percent.

Berkley crushed Wegner again.

Fast forward to today. Nine Republicans are running in the newly created 4th District for the right to challenge Democratic state Sen. Steven Horsford, a man some GOP stalwarts believe is vulnerable despite the district’s liberal tilt. The well-funded GOP candidates have been Danny Tarkanian, son of UNLV basketball coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian and Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, and newcomer Dan Schwartz, who’s spending six figures of his own money.

And then there’s Ken Wegner. Again.

Once more, Wegner is running with a few signs, no money and support from veterans. And once again, he’s causing enough trouble for the “serious” candidates to swing the race.

I see state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, with her highly targeted grass-roots campaign and experience winning legislative races, finishing strong. She’s clearly doing well in exit polling from early voting – well enough to make Tarkanian launch new ads attacking her.

In the end, I think the 4th District primary winner will take less than 30 percent of the vote – just like the 1st District race in 2010. And it will serve as yet another reminder that, contrary to the howls of the Occupy movement, money alone doesn’t win elections. Especially in a crowded, low-turnout primary, a gadfly paying a filing fee can be the difference between winning and losing.

A fine line

When you have a citizen Legislature, as Nevada does, lawmaking alone does not put food on the table. Legislators who aren’t retired need to have full-time jobs when they’re not in Carson City.

Lawmakers rarely have a problem turning their political power and influence into good-paying work. Sometimes, however, their pursuit of business and the advancement of their political careers conveniently intersect. Take the new billboards in eastern Las Vegas promoting Assemblywoman Lucy Flores.

Flores is seeking her second term in the lower chamber. Her District 28 is roughly bordered by Las Vegas Boulevard, Pecos Road and Nellis and Charleston boulevards. It’s a safely Democratic district, and she faces no Republican challengers. However, a pair of Democratic challengers have forced her to campaign aggressively in a primary.

Flores, an attorney, has worked for almost a year with the firm Maddox, Isaacson & Cisneros. The billboards promote Flores as an attorney and do not mention her re-election campaign.

But they sure read like political advertisements. And, coincidentally, they are right around District 28.

A billboard visible to eastbound Charleston traffic at Eastern Avenue shows her photo and emphasizes her as “A lawyer from the community. For the community.” That’s practically a campaign slogan.

I’m not an advertising expert, but I know phone numbers are pretty important components of advertising campaigns – especially if you’re a lawyer hustling for clients. And in Flores’ billboard, the phone number is in tiny white type on an olive background, tucked in the lower left corner. It’s basically unnoticeable if you’re driving by.

I asked Flores if the billboards were political advertisements, considering their timing, design and placement.

“The firm decided to launch an advertising campaign targeting the Hispanic market in an effort to expand that client base,” Flores wrote in an email. “Therefore, we decided to highlight the Hispanic members of the firm, which include me and one of the partners, Norberto Cisneros. We have launched a full advertising campaign which includes billboards, print ads and radio. As with any type of marketing, we decided to advertise where we could reach the largest numbers of that demographic; hence, strategic placement of billboards across the city, appropriate newspapers and radio stations.”

So should Flores’ billboards be considered political expenses subject to reporting requirements? No. Citizen lawmakers have a right to make a living, and they certainly have a right to advertise their services.

But it would be nice if they were a little less obvious about crossing the fine line between their political and professional lives.

Big budget, little-known office

If you live in the 3rd Congressional District, you might think Allison Serafin is running for, well, Congress. She has some of the most polished color mailers of the primary season – and she’s sent out a ton of them. In each one, Serafin looks like a million bucks and is shown at the front of a racially diverse classroom.

Only she’s running for the State Board of Education, a panel that was nearly eliminated in the education reforms that passed the 2011 Legislature. Under those reforms, the board was reconstituted. Ten elected members were reduced to four – one in each congressional district – with the governor appointing the other three voting members.

Serafin is in a five-way primary for District 3, and I’d wager she has sent out more mail than anyone actually running for the 3rd Congressional District. She has handlers, and she has raised about $60,000 for her campaign, an amount larger than what many legislative candidates collect and an unheard of sum for a board hardly anyone knows anything about. Her closest fundraising rival is current State Board of Education member Annie Wilson, at less than $9,000, with about half that total coming from the state and local teachers unions.

Serafin has a long resume for a 36-year-old, and she has the backing of some heavy hitters, including Elaine Wynn. Serafin is the former executive director of the local chapter of Teach for America, and she’s currently a consultant to Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones.

Something tells me this race is a stepping stone, and that we’ll be seeing Serafin on ballots for years to come.

On Twitter

After well more than a year of being told I didn’t know what I was missing, I finally have joined the Twitter universe: @Glenn_CookNV.

I offer periodic perspective on politics and policy and, on occasion, fresh news. As they say, join the conversation.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV.

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