When it comes to the Senate, Shelley Berkley is all in

CARSON CITY — Rep. Shelley Berkley said she decided to run for the U.S. Senate because "I realized there was nobody who was going to fight harder than me."

She was, of course, referring to her notorious work ethic; she caps each week in Washington with a weekend of attending community events and meeting with constituents. Berkley’s an unequaled dynamo when it comes to her congressional labors.

But she may as well have been talking about the race to replace scandal-felled U.S. Sen. John Ensign. And Berkley’s going to need every ounce of energy on the campaign trail, facing off with Republican Rep. Dean Heller.

For months, it wasn’t clear if Berkley would apply herself to the Senate contest. While she was always interested in the job, she had to weigh giving up what was essentially a lifetime appointment to Congress from one of the safest districts in the country. That decision didn’t come easily to the usually decisive Berkley, even though her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, was encouraging her to get in.

"It all boils down to what’s good for Nevada," she says. And what she thinks is good for Nevada is Shelley Berkley in the Senate.

Berkley has definitely chosen the more difficult path. First, she has to get through a Democratic primary, where attorney and Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission member Byron Georgiou does not show any signs of backing off. In a statement he released Thursday, Georgiou praised Berkley but said the election would not be decided by "party insiders" and would not be a "coronation."

But party insiders clearly favor Berkley — U.S. Sen. Harry Reid embraced her in a statement Thursday. "But she is also a visionary with a commitment to creating jobs, protecting programs seniors count on and getting our economy back on track," Reid said. "Shelley has been a dependable partner in the House and I look forward to her partnership in the Senate as we work together to move Nevada forward."

Partnership? It’s clear whom Reid is backing. But it was clear even before that, as Berkley would never have made the final call to run if she didn’t have at least Reid’s tacit support.

There were doubts along the way. The top staffer with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee interviewed other top Democrats, including Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller, in case Berkley opted not to run.

The congresswoman says she encouraged the party to talk to other potential candidates, knowing she was the top choice all along. "I’ve paid my dues," she said in a March interview with the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

Once the primary is over, Berkley faces a Republican assault that will take direct aim at her record. The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a statement on Thursday that said Berkley was a too-reliable vote for President Obama, backing the stimulus and the health care reform law. Those issues are designed to whip up Tea Party Republicans, many of whom populate the rural parts of the state (that Berkley has no chance of winning anyway). But she’s not ignorant of the deficit-and-debt issue, either.

"The question is do we do it (control spending) on the backs of middle-income families and senior citizens, or do we have everybody in this country pay their fair share?" Berkley asked.

That argument may appeal to Democratic and moderate voters in Clark County, Berkley’s base, and her new friends in Washoe County. Whether it will succeed remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the hardest-working woman in Nevada politics isn’t going to skimp when it comes to selling it.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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