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Race undergirds this contest for Congress

Sure, President Barack Obama’s re-election is the marquee fight of 2012, but the undercard is getting even more interesting.

Former Rep. Dina Titus announced her bid in the 1st Congressional District on Thursday, recounting how she spent her first Christmas at Nellis Air Force base, where her father was stationed. Later, she’d return to Nevada and live, work and represent parts of the district for 34 years.

“This is definitely my home, and I’m delighted to be running in the 1st District,” Titus said.

Just a few hours later, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen — also running in the district — held a news conference to announce endorsements from Hispanic leaders. Kihuen noted how he’d grown up, gone to high school and college, and represented the area in the Assembly and state Senate.

Titus was peppered with questions about why she chose to run in the 1st District instead of seeking a rematch in the 3rd District, where Rep. Joe Heck defeated her in 2010. (If you guessed the 27-point advantage registered Democratic voters have in the 1st District over the 2.62-point Democratic advantage in the 3rd District — not to mention having to endure a competitive primary and general election — give yourself extra credit.)

In the 1st District, whomever wins the primary will be the next member of Congress. But getting to that point is driving a huge wedge into the heart of the Democratic Party, as longtime allies line up either for Titus or Kihuen. And the implications of the race don’t stop there: Hispanic voter turnout is key to Democratic victories up and down the ticket, including Obama’s re-election and Rep. Shelley Berkley’s chances of defeating U.S. Sen. Dean Heller.

For her part, Titus cites her long experience, both in the state Senate and as a member of Congress. She counts the health care reform law, Wall Street reform, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and, yes, the DREAM Act, among her accomplishments. (That law would have offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who went to college or served in the military.)

“When it comes to a choice between the powerful and the people, my record shows I will always stand with the people,” she said.

Asked about Kihuen, she encouraged reporters to compare their respective records, a not-so-subtle dig at his much-thinner list of legislative accomplishments. In the 2011 Legislature, Kihuen sponsored only a single resolution recognizing the late Eddie Escobedo; Titus never had a session in which she failed to introduce legislation.

But for the Hispanic community, Kihuen’s record takes a back seat to his heritage, and what he represents: The first real chance for a born-and-bred Las Vegas Hispanic to get elected to Congress. (Thirty-six percent of the district’s adult population is Hispanic, although not all are registered to vote.)

“For many people who own a house, it’s the American dream,” said Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. “For us, Ruben is our American dream.”

And Titus is now threatening that dream. Several leaders — including Hispanics in Politics leader Fernando Romero, Si Se Puede Democratic Caucus leader Vicenta Montoya and Eddie Escobedo Jr. — said they were angry with Titus for running in the 1st District and encouraged her to campaign elsewhere.

But that’s not going to happen. So now the question is, how nasty will this fight get? If Kihuen loses, will the Hispanic community become dispirited and stay home in November when Democrats need their help in other races? And just who is the district’s best choice: The political science professor with decades of experience, or the up-and-comer who just happens to be Hispanic?

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

 

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