With Sen. John Ensign now out of the picture, national Democrats are attempting to soften up Rep. Dean Heller, the perceived Republican front runner for the U.S. Senate from Nevada whenever he decides to announce.
For their part, Republicans say an attack launched today on the prospective candidate is a sign that Dems are nervous about Heller. The skirmish 20 months out from Election Day 2012 is further evidence the suddenly open Silver State Senate seat will be hotly contested.
In a memo distributed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, executive director Guy Cecil argues a Heller candidacy “is very much a paper tiger.”
“Though Heller is perceived as a formidable candidate, a close examination of his Nevada vote performance reveals his support is a mile wide and an inch deep,” Cecil writes in a memo distributed to reporters.
Cecil contended Heller, who won election to Secretary of State in 1994, and re-election in 1998 and 2002, “has never faced a competitive statewide election.”
The Democrat also questioned Heller’s 5 percent margin of victory over Democrat Jill Derby when they ran for the U.S. House from Northern Nevada in 2006. In 2008 Heller beat Derby in a rematch by a 52-41 percent margin. But Democrats argued he only won Republican Washoe County by 1 percent.
The memo says Democratic polling further shows Heller “has very little profile in Clark County and among Hispanics,” both expected to be strongholds for a Democratic candidate,
“Even in Washoe County, where voters should know him best, only 52 percent have a favorable opinion,” Cecil writes.
Ensign’s retirement “affirms Nevada’s position as a top pickup opportunity for Democrats this cycle,” Cecil concludes. “Republicans face an uphill battle in this blue-trending state.”
Heller political adviser Mike Slanker responded the memo was a sign the Democrats are nervous. And Slanker’s response is a further show that it is not a question of if Heller gets into the race, but rather when.
“Do you really believe the National Democrats would take the time to put together and release an attack memo on Dean Heller 20 months before an election if they actually believed he was weak? Of course not,” Slanker said. “They are well aware that Dean is the strongest candidate in the race.
“Dean Heller has never lost a race (Assembly, Secretary of State, or Congress) and won despite being outspent dramatically by the right and the left in 2006. He has endured millions of dollars in negative attacks since 2006 and won,” Slanker said.
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called it a “spin memo from Democrats who are staring at an increasingly daunting 2012 Senate map” where they will be defending 23 seats.
Nevada political science professor Mark Peplowski said the attack “is a classic example of the Democrats trying to plant seeds to encourage a divisive bloodletting in the Republican primary.”
“The Democrats have cherry-picked some facts from Heller’s previous elections to try to paint him as a no-win candidate,” said Peplowski, who teaches at the College of Southern Nevada. “They want to make him look weak so other Republicans will throw down.”
“It’s the same thing that Harry Reid did to Sue Lowden last year,” Peplowski said, referring to last year’s Senate race in Nevada. “When it appeared she would be the most viable candidate against Harry, he pulled out all the stops to paint her as a no-win candidate and someone who is a little off her rocker.”
Peplowski said it could be argued that Heller enjoyed noncompetitive races as secretary of state because Democrats chose not to take on a popular office-holder. In the 2006 and 2008 House campaigns, he said Derby had a strong base as a longtime member on the nonpartisan Board of Regents.
“This is exactly what I thought would happen,” Peplowski said. “Heller is going to be the stalking horse at this point and everybody is going to be aiming to take him down.”