The U.S. Senate race in Nevada turned to finger-pointing on Friday over which candidate is a bigger friend to dreaded "Big Oil."
Democrats renewed an attack on Sen. Dean Heller over votes he has cast supportive of the oil and gas industry, and campaign donations he has received from it. They launched an Internet ad campaign to spotlight the accusation.
This time, Heller seemed to be ready with a counterpunch. His campaign charged Rep. Shelley Berkley, his Democratic opponent for re-election, was profiting from oil company investments made through a trust in the name of her wealthy husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner.
"When it comes to profiting from big oil, turns out Congresswoman Berkley is making BIG money off big oil," Heller adviser Mike Slanker said in an email. "Once again, Congresswoman Berkley doesn’t believe the rules apply to her."
The family trust of Berkley’s husband has invested in at least five oil-related companies, according to the lawmaker’s most recent personal finance report filed in May with the U.S. House.
The investments include $81,872 in Anadarko Petroleum; $69,690 in BHP Billiton, an Australia-based diversified energy company with a petroleum subsidiary; $19,113 in Cenovus Energy, a Canadian oil company; $98,110 in Occidental Petroleum; and $75,150 in Schlumberger, a multinational oilfield services company.
The Heller campaign also listed a $33,264 investment in Anglo American PLC, but pulled it off after it was pointed out that is a mining company and not oil and gas-related.
Berkley campaign manager Jessica Mackler said the Democrat had no control over the investments. Like most of the family finances, the trust is in Berkley’s husband’s name. Further, she said the Lehrner investments are in a blind trust through Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.
In the House disclosure of the Morgan Stanley account, Berkley reported "all trades by advisor without discussion with client."
"Any comparison on this is absurd," Mackler said. "He is voting on behalf of big oil after getting campaign contributions. She is voting against taxpayer giveaways to big oil. The comparisons don’t really make sense."
The round of accusations is the latest thrust and parry in a contentious campaign, even with a year to go before Election Day 2012. The latest poll, released this week by the Public Policy Polling organization, shows Berkley and Heller in a dead heat at 45 percent support apiece.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Friday’s skirmish over oil companies was "classic campaign technique." Democrats saw an opening to tie Heller around an unpopular industry, and Heller attempted to pull Berkley in with him.
"Basically what Heller is saying is that nobody has clean hands," Herzik said, although he added the fact that the investments were made through a blind trust may give Berkley cover.
"These are classic campaign techniques," Herzik said. "This is why the public kind of rolls its eyes" at modern politics.
The latest Democrat campaign is using Facebook and Google advertisements to reach Nevadans when they go online. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is reviving a charge that Heller in his career voted on eight occasions to protect tax breaks for oil companies while receiving $116,950 in campaign contributions.
Heller supports expanded energy exploration and is against raising corporate taxes as policy matters. His spokesman has said accusations that those stances are tied to campaign money are "baseless."
A DSCC spokesman said the Heller ads will run "a few weeks," but would not disclose the ad budget.
Besides Heller, the Democrats are running similar ads against GOP Senate candidates Jeff Flake of Arizona, Denny Rehberg of Montana and George Allen of Virginia.
Democrats rolled out the line of attack earlier this year and saw an opportunity to do so again when higher oil prices translated into strong third quarter earnings announced this week for many energy companies.
In response to the DSCC ads, Republicans said Democrats should have little to say about Big Oil.
They noted President Barack Obama proposed killing $40 billion in tax breaks for oil companies as part of his American Jobs Act, but Democrats shelved the idea after senators who represent oil and gas-producing states objected to it.
Republican spokesman Jahan Wilcox on Friday called the online campaign "a cheap political stunt aimed at distracting Nevadans."
Neither Heller nor Berkley are strongly dependent on the oil and gas industry for political donations, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Oil and gas ranks 14th among industries donating to Heller during his congressional career that began in 2007. The top five donors are gaming ($538,213), other members of Congress ($483,217), real estate ($464,950), health professionals ($312,025) and retirees ($268,975).
For Berkley, who assumed office in 1999, it is less. Since 2000 — the earliest election cycle tracked by the center — she received $25,550 from oil and gas, ranking 53rd among industries.
Berkley’s top five industry donors are gaming ($1 million), health professionals ($819,662), lawyers ($710,856), pro-Israel groups ($665,174), and real estate ($647,090).