Rep. Shelley Berkley isn’t being coy about whether to run for U.S. Senate next year. She legitimately doesn’t know yet.
And that’s a new feeling for Berkley, who has charted a winning path through Nevada politics from her college days, when she was the first woman elected student body president of UNLV.
Since then, as a university regent and congresswoman, Berkley has always known what she wanted. Until now.
“I could go either way,” says Berkley, in her Las Vegas office, cluttered with years of Nevada political memorabilia. “Now, I love what I do. I’d hate to give it up.”
On the other hand, she says, she’d love to represent her home state in the U.S. Senate, too.
Berkley’s resolving her dilemma deliberatively, conducting focus groups and waiting for polls from the respected Mark Mellman. “If he comes back and says there’s a path to victory, then I’m all in,” says Berkley. And that’s saying something: Berkley is a notoriously hard worker, returning to Nevada every weekend and often attending multiple events in a single evening after she steps off a plane.
This week, Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, visited Nevada to talk with several backup candidates in the event Berkley decides not to run. But each of those people — Secretary of State Ross Miller, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and state Treasurer Kate Marshall — have told Berkley they won’t run if she does. That shows, if Berkley decides to run, she won’t face a primary the way expected Republican front-runner Dean Heller will if wounded incumbent Sen. John Ensign stays in.
But regardless of what happens on the Republican side, Berkley has several factors in her favor.
First, she’ll be running on the same ticket as President Barack Obama, who has proved if nothing else he can get his voters to the polls. It’s true Obama will be a more tarnished candidate in 2012 than he was in 2008, and that some Democrats are disappointed with his tenure. But if he excites at least some Democrats the way he did four years ago, he’ll bring voters out all over the state who will push a button for Berkley, too.
Second, Berkley’s base is in Las Vegas, and her supporters here are die-hards. Census figures show that more than 72 percent of Nevada voters live in Clark County, Berkley’s home, and an additional 15 percent live in Washoe. Berkley has made two trips to Washoe County in recent days, and don’t be surprised if she makes several more as she makes a final decision on whether to run.
In rural Nevada there’s not much support for Berkley, but that’s mostly because of her party affiliation. But if Obama (in 2008) and Sen. Harry Reid (in 1998, 2004 and 2010) proved anything, it’s that there’s a path to victory in Nevada that excludes rural Nevada entirely.
Third, despite that party affiliation, Berkley’s no wild-eyed liberal. She’s crusaded against the estate tax (she, like Republicans who hate it, calls it the “death tax”) and she voted to extend former President George W. Bush’s tax breaks. National Journal ranks Berkley as the 153th most liberal member of Congress, which is surprising only inasmuch as there are 152 other members who can be called “liberal.”
Make no mistake: A race against Heller would not be a cakewalk. He’s an extremely popular Republican who’s run statewide as secretary of state three times and nearly statewide as a congressman three times. Berkley knows this — hence her reluctance to jump in without first testing the waters scientifically.
“You can’t go into this blind,” she says. “In the end, it’s going to be my guts.”
No matter what her guts are telling her, it’s clear Shelley Berkley is the Democrats’ best chance to return former Sen. Richard Bryan’s seat to their party’s hands.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or SSebelius@gmail.com.