In the competitive 3rd Congressional District, Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Heck and Democratic Assembly Speaker John Oceguera have been trading jabs for months. They emerged unscathed from easy primary fights Tuesday.
In the U.S. Senate race, Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley and Republican Sen. Dean Heller have been locked in a tough general election battle since last year. They also brushed aside unknown rivals in Tuesday’s election.
And while the 4th Congressional District GOP primary was the only competitive House race on the ballot Tuesday, Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford has been campaigning for general election votes since October.
“Politics has become a year-round sport,” said Republican campaign consultant Robert Uithoven. “You look at members of the House of Representatives, the day they are sworn into office they are on the phone raising money for their next campaign.”
Nevada’s House and Senate contests are among a few in the nation that could determine which political party takes control of Congress. Democrats want to keep their majority in the Senate, while Republicans are protecting their leadership in the House.
In the newly created 4th District race, Democrats and even some Republicans argue that contest might be a lost cause for the GOP.
Businessman Danny Tarkanian won 32 percent of the vote over second-place finisher Barbara Cegasvke’s 28 percent in the primary. After three previous failed campaigns, Tarkanian said he could prevail against Horsford by appealing to rural voters, who tend to lean Republican.
But critics claim his game plan is wishful thinking. There were 113,000 active Democratic voters registered in the district in May, compared with fewer than 90,000 Republicans. Horsford has $507,228 cash on hand against Tarkanian’s depleted $63,820 campaign kitty.
“You would have to have 100 percent turnout in the rurals,” said Vicenta Montoya, founder of the Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus. “Danny, get a clue.”
The 4th District is roughly 27 percent Hispanic and 16 percent black, which could also favor Horsford, the state’s first black majority leader. President Barack Obama won Nevada with minority voters in 2008 and his turnout machine in November could buoy Horsford’s already strong campaign.
“The district has been created in such a way that it gives him a built-in advantage to be able to win,” Montoya said.
Tarkanian is a former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball player and the son of former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. He previously ran and lost in statewide races for Nevada secretary of state and the U.S. Senate, placing third in the 2010 GOP primary behind tea favorite Sharron Angle and former state Sen. Sue Lowden. He also lost a bid for state Senate in 2004.
His victory in Tuesday’s hotly contested primary came after a federal judge signed a $17 million judgment last month against him and his family from a failed real estate deal. Tarkanian has said he was the victim in the ongoing legal battle.
Horsford was elected to the state Senate in 2004. He serves as CEO of the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas.
The 4th District stretches across Clark, Esmeralda, Lincoln, Lyon, Mineral, Nye and White Pine counties. Nevada gained the district after the 2010 Census count showed the state’s population had been the fastest-growing in the nation.
Heck’s general election contest against Oceguera will likely be the most competitive House race in Nevada. The 3rd District had 105,000 registered Democrats in May and 107,000 Republicans. Heck quickly amassed a massive campaign haul and has $1.1 million cash on hand, compared with Oceguera’s $438,300 in campaign reserves.
“We know John Oceguera is going to be in one of the toughest, most closely watched elections in the country,” said campaign manager Adam Weiss. “We feel confident that we will have the resources to compete.”
Oceguera bested five Democrats to earn his slot in the November general election, while Heck easily fended off one Republican rival. The two have been sparring for months over Nevada’s troubled economy, the national deficit and the federal health care law. Nevada tops the nation in unemployment and has high foreclosures and bankruptcy rates.
Oceguera and Heck also have been targeting minority groups in the district, which has the largest Asian population in the state.
“Oceguera, this is new to him. He is not as experienced as Joe Heck, certainly not in that large of an area,” Uithoven said. “Heck’s much more experienced in tough races, and he’s experienced in raising federal money. That counts a lot.”
Nevada’s Senate race is also of national interest. Heller was appointed to the Senate last year after disgraced Republican John Ensign resigned. Heller served as Nevada’s secretary of state before being elected to the U.S. House to represent northern Nevada in 2006. Berkley was first elected to represent Las Vegas in 1998.
At least two candidates don’t have to worry about November. Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei and Democratic former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus are all but guaranteed a return to Washington. Amodei is safe in his largely Republican district, while the 1st Congressional District in Las Vegas is Titus’ for the taking because it leans so heavily Democratic. A Democrat has never won Amodei’s 2nd Congressional District.