Another installment in our guest series from Kay King:
Nevada U.S. Senate Race
Mormons Battling on Opposite Sides
Nevada is the only state other than Utah ever to have two U.S. senators serving together both members of the Church. LDS Senator Harry Reid (D-NV 1987 – present) has now served almost 16 years in the Senate. He is currently the Senate Majority Leader, the most senior leadership position in the Senate and the highest office a Latter-day Saint elected official has held thus far. Dean Heller (R-NV House of Representatives 2007-2011) was appointed by the Governor of Nevada to serve the remainder of the Senate term of Senator John Ensign (R-NV – 2001-2011) and not LDS, who resigned from the Senate on May 3, 2011. Heller had previously announced his intention to run for Ensign’s senate seat in March 2011 when Ensign announced that he would not run for reelection (“Dean Heller announces run for Senate in Nevada,” Washington Post).
Senator John Ensign’s Ethics Problems
Ensign’s resignation followed revelation of an extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton, the wife of Ensign’s administrative assistant/chief of staff, Doug Hampton. Ensign conspired to keep the affair secret and his parents made cash payments to the Hamptons. The senator also broke Congressional ethics laws by assisting Doug Hampton in his lobbying activities. When the affair, the payments, and the violation of ethics laws were made public after June 16, 2009, Ensign faced increasingly damaging revelations.
In March 2011, Ensign announced that he would not seek reelection in 2012. The Senate Ethics Committee, which began an investigation of the scandal in 2010, concluded that it had found “substantial and credible evidence” that Ensign broke federal laws in his effort to cover up the extramarital affair and referred the case to the Department of Justice and Federal Election Commission for further investigation. The Committee further determined that the evidence warranted considering expelling Ensign from the Senate (“Senate ethics committee: Ensign violated federal laws,” Washington Post; “The Ensign-Hampton Affair,” TMP Muckraker). Faced with the possibility of expulsion and further public revelations of the affair, Ensign resigned from the Senate on March 3, 2011, stopping the Ethics Committee from considering whether to expel him.
Senator Dean Heller
Dean Heller was elected to the House of Representatives from Nevada’s 2nd congressional district in November 2006, and he served in the House from January 3, 2007 until he resigned to accept the appointment as senator on May 9, 2011. Before serving in the House, Heller was elected to three terms as Nevada Secretary of State (1995-2006) and served two terms as a member of the Nevada State Assembly (1990-1994). Before his political career, Heller was an institutional stock broker and a broker/trader on the Pacific Stock Exchange. He was born in Castro Valley, California, but he was taken to Carson City, Nevada, as an infant and grew up there. His home is still in Nevada’s capital city. Heller is a convert to the Church.
Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-NV 1999-2013), a Jewish Democrat from Las Vegas, announced her intention to run for the Nevada Senate seat in April 2011, just after Senator John Ensign announced he would not be a candidate for reelection. Berkley has served almost 14 years in the House of Representatives. She was born in New York state, but as a child came to Las Vegas, where she graduated from high school and university. An attorney and an advisor for business clients on government affairs before her election to Congress, she was a member of the Nevada State Assembly (1983-1985) and a member of the Nevada University and Community College System Board of Regents (1990-1998).
Both Heller and Berkley faced minor candidates in their respective primary elections earlier this year, and both easily prevailed. The general election contest between Heller and Berkley, however, is likely to be hard-fought, close, and expensive. Ideologically and politically they are opposites. Heller is a fiscal and social conservative and his former congressional district (Nevada 2nd) is the entire state with the exception of except Clark County / Las Vegas. Berkley is a progressive on government and social issues and her congressional district (Nevada 1st) is urban Las Vegas, the Strip, and North Las Vegas. Both are effective effective campaign fund raisers. Berkley reported raising $7,124,065 as of reports filed by July 3, 2012 compared to Heller’s $6,559,958. Berkley has spent over $4.2 million as of June 30, and Heller has spent $2.1 million (OpenSecrets.org).
Heller as the incumbent senator probably has slightly better name recognition in the state, but Nevada is a small state (in population) and Heller is not as well known in urban Clark County (Las Vegas), which is home to three-quarters of the state’s population. Berkley, on the other hand, has represented Las Vegas in Congress for almost 14 years and is well known there. Early poll numbers indicated a very tight race, with Berkley making gains against Heller since the beginning of the campaign. An April 2012 Rasmussen Reports poll gave Heller an 11 point advantage – Heller at 51% and Berkley at 40%. The most recent poll in the last week of August however shows Heller ahead by only 2 points – Heller at 47% and Berkley at 45% (RealClearPolitics.com). Some observers suggest that these polls undercount Hispanic voters and that Berkeley leads by a small margin (Daily Kos: NV-Sen: Upgrading the Senate with Shelly Berkley).
Berkley suffered somewhat in the summer when the House Ethics Committee announced an investigation into allegations that the congresswoman acted improperly to aid a kidney transplant center that is linked with her physician husband’s medical practice. She aggressively responded with a major television add campaign, but Heller launched his own advertising blitz focusing on the ethics charges (“Nevada Senate race grows hot with ad wars, debates,” Las Vegas Review Journal; “Shelley Berkeley faces uphill battle in Nevada,” Politico).
The Nevada U.S. Senate race will be very much affected by the presidential campaign. Nevada is one of the swing states, and its six electoral votes could represent the margin for victory in a close presidential race. The Obama presidential campaign with the support of Majority Leader Harry Reid is putting a major effort into Nevada, and Democratic efforts will certainly help Berkley. At the same time the Romney presidential campaign is also focusing a major effort on Nevada, and that work in turning out Republican votes will be beneficial for Heller.
The Majority Leader: Religion and Politics
The interesting Mormon wrinkle in the Heller reelection effort is that LDS Senator Harry Reid has endorsed Heller’s opponent, Shelley Berkley. One new report observed, “With Republicans clamoring to take away his majority, Reid is helping Democratic Senate candidates across the nation raise money and demonize their opponents. Nowhere is his hand more visible than in his home state, where Democrats can capture a seat from Republicans.” But Heller has been quick to use Reid’s unpopularity with conservatives: “Conservatives blame him [Reid] for the struggling economy and oversized federal deficits and are incensed about him butting in on this year’s Senate contest. Sensing opportunity, Heller has used Reid’s attacks in fundraising emails.” (Bloomberg/Businessweek; “It’s Reid vs. Heller now in U.S. Senate race,” Las Vegas Sun.)
According to Politico, a leading politics news medium in Washington D.C., Reid has made a major commitment to Berkley’s campaign: “Already, Reid’s team is enlisting top staff, pollsters and fundraisers on behalf of Berkley, fine-tuning its voter registration and identification programs, recruiting an army of volunteers to reach out to voters, sending fundraising solicitations to 70,000 email addresses acquired through the last campaign and drafting new plans to target the state’s rapidly growing Hispanic population. On fundraising, many well-heeled donors in Nevada and Washington fear backlash from the powerful Democratic leader if they donate to Berkley’s primary challengers or to Sen. Dean Heller, the Republican incumbent.” In an interview, Heller, when pressed, said, “It’s reasonable to make the argument that I have two opponents, yes: Shelley Berkley and Harry Reid.” (“Reid’s shadow looms over Nevada Senate race,” AP.)
After the 2010 election, pundits had all but announced a Republican majority in control of the Senate after the 2012 election. Of the 33 Senate seats contested in 2012, 23 were Democratic seats and only 10 were Republican. Several long-term Democrats from conservative states were retiring, meaning they would be harder for Democrats to retain. For most of 2011, analysts were confidently predicting Republican control after the 2012 election. Things changed in early 2012, however, with the announcement of the retirement of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe and improving prospects for the democratic candidate in the open Senate seat in North Dakota. Now pundits are suggesting a much more closely divided Senate, with a possible 50-50 tie, with control going to the party which wins the White House (because the Vice President votes to break ties in the Senate). The winner of the Nevada Senate race could well decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. Reid’s self interest is clear. (“Mitch McConnell and the battle for Senate Control,” Washington Post.)
The fact that Reid is working against his coreligionist Heller in this Senate race is not new or unusual. LDS Apostle and U.S. Senator Reed Smoot (R-UT 1903-1933) was defeated in his bid for a sixth term in 1932 by University of Utah Professor and former Japanese Mission President Elbert Thomas (D-UT 1933-1951) (“Utah Elections: 1932, Utah History Encyclopedia). More recently when now First Quorum of Seventy member Larry Echo Hawk was running as a Democrat for the post of Governor of Idaho in 1994, he did not carry the heavily Mormon counties in the southeastern part of the state, though Echo Hawk was an active Church member and his Republican opponent was not a member (1994 Idaho General Election: Governor Vote by County). The bottom line is that Church members increasingly see religion and politics as separate spheres, though clearly a higher portion of Latter-day Saints lean Republican politically. (Pew gives the portion of Mormons leaning Republican as 74% and the proportion leaning Democratic as 17% – Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.)
The Mormon vote in Nevada is significant, with Latter-day Saints making up 7 to 8% of the total Nevada population, though the number of those who are active Church members is probably half that number. Politically the Mormon vote, particularly in Nevada, is more important than its size. In a state with a transient population, Mormon turnout on election day is proportionately higher, and since Mormons are heavily Republican, the Mormon vote is very significant for the Republican Party. The preponderance of the Mormon vote is already inclined to vote for Heller, and the numbers of Mormons not already leaning Republican are small. For Heller, the draw of Mitt Romney at the head of the Republican ticket could increase Mormon voter turnout, and this would be helpful for him. Senator Harry Reid won reelection in Nevada in 2010 despite the fact that the vast majority of his coreligionists probably voted against him (“Mormon influence in Nevada fading, but still a factor,” CNN).
Nevada was the first state after Utah to have a Mormon member of Congress, Berkley L. Bunker, a Mormon from southern Nevada and the first person from southern Nevada to represent the state in Congress, was appointed U.S. Senator after the death of Nevada Senator Key Pittman in 1940. He served two years until his successor was elected. He later served one term in the U.S. House (D-NV Senate 1940-1942; House 1945-1947). (“Berkeley L. Bunker,” Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress.) In addition to Bunker, Nevada has had a number of other Latter-day Saints in Congress – Howard W. Cannon (D-NV Senate 1959-1983) (“Howard Walter Cannon”); Harry Reid (D-NV House 1983-1987; Senate 1987-present); Jim Gibbons (R-NV House 1997-2006) who later served as governor of Nevada (“James A. Gibbons”); Dean Heller (R-NV House 2007-2011; Senate 2011-present) (“Dean Heller”). Gibbons did not identify himself as a Latter-day Saint while he was serving in Congress, but he made a point of doing so after he was elected governor of Nevada.
Congressman Jim Santini (D-NV 1975-1983), who was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the Nevada U.S. Senate seat in 1982 and the unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate against Harry Reid in 1986, is now a member of the Church, but he was not at the time he served in Congress (“James David Santini”).