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Tough past races, experience play into Senate race

There’s no question running for U.S. Senate against Rep. Joe Heck will be the most difficult race former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto has ever had.

The question is, will it be the toughest race Heck has ever run in Nevada?

Back in 2006, Cortez Masto easily defeated her Republican rival, former District Court Judge Don Chairez, 59 percent to 35.6 percent in a two-person race. Four years later, she earned 53 percent of the vote while turning away two challengers, Republican Travis Barrick (who in a historical parallel also earned 35.6 percent) and Independent American Joel Hansen, who got 7.8 percent.

Neither race was difficult, and neither played out on a national stage, as the coming U.S. Senate contest surely will. Nevada is a key state for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to keep his seat in Democratic hands and win back the Senate for his party before he finally retires. Advantage, Cortez Masto.

For Heck, things are a little different. He got his political start in 2004, narrowly defeating Republican state Sen. Ann O’Connell in District 5 by 51 percent to 47 percent, with just 639 votes separating them. He went on to easily win the general election with nearly 55 percent of the vote in a three-person race.

But then came 2008, and the Barack Obama wave, when Democrats were able to sweep several seats, including Heck’s. Heck lost the general election that year to Democrat Shirley Breeden by the thinnest of margins, 46.5 percent to 45.8 percent, just 765 votes separating them.

Heck came back in 2010, choosing to run against former state senator and then-3rd Congressional District Rep. Dina Titus, one of Nevada’s toughest and most experienced campaigners. It was an epic race, and for a man used to close margins, it was par for the course: Heck barely edged Titus by just 1,748 votes, 48 percent to 47 percent, in a five-person contest. (Titus returned in 2012 to run for and win the 1st Congressional District, which she owns to this day.)

Since that race, Heck’s had an easier time of things. He beat former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera 50 percent to 43 percent in 2012, and he crushed political trainer Erin Bilbray last year, 60 percent to 36 percent.

When it comes to tough, close races, Heck’s been there, done that and has a whole collection of the T-shirts. Advantage, Heck.

Then again, Heck has never run a statewide race, or any race outside a district bigger than his Southern Nevada enclave. Cortez Masto has done so, twice, and recently enough to maintain her name identification. Advantage, Cortez Masto.

When it comes to that statewide race, Heck will do exceptionally well in Republican-rich rural Nevada, where his background as an emergency room physician and a U.S. Army doctor (he was just promoted to brigadier general in the U.S. Army reserve) will endear him to voters. They’ll fight hard over closely divided Washoe County.

But the battleground, as always, will be Clark County, where both Heck and Cortez Masto are based. Heck won his Clark County district with 50 percent in 2012, the last presidential election year, which saw Obama win 56 percent of the vote here. The county is still dark blue (there are more than 100,000 active Democrats than there are Republicans as of June), so Heck needs badly to hold down his margin of loss.

Overall, the state has 55,210 more active registered Democrats than Republicans, and that margin will likely grow, as the Democratic Party and outside groups push to sign up more voters in anticipation of a presidential election, with potential historical implications.

Speaking of, Cortez Masto — if elected — will be the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, a prospect that’s sure to excite the large and growing Hispanic community. And while Heck has done his level best to reach out to Latino voters (he’s come out for a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers and last week sponsored a bill to get grant funds to Hispanic-serving institutions), he’ll still struggle with the Latino demographic. Advantage, Cortez Masto.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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