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No Democrat Gambling on Porter Race Yet

Despite dreams of expanding the national playing field in 2004, House Democrats have yet to find a challenger to freshman Rep. Jon Porter (R) in Nevada’s 3rd district — a seat created during the 2000 reapportionment to be one of the most competitive in the nation.

“Right now [the Democrats] have nobody, and the people who are interested, I don’t think they are thrilled with,” said Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston. “They have a serious problem.”

In 2002, Democrats had high hopes for the seat, but their nominee, former Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera — dogged by ethics problems — was trounced by Porter 56 percent to 37 percent.

“The so-called farm team just isn’t there,” noted Democratic consultant Gary Gray. “Some of the guys who I think have incredible promise have [other] obligations or are just seasoning themselves legislatively.”

What’s more, many of the candidates who have expressed interest are members of the state Legislature and are in a precarious position given its recent approval of the largest tax increase in Silver State history.

“Most of their farm team are state legislators that just went through a contentious legislative session,” said Nevada political consultant Steve Wark of Capitol Strategies. As Congressional candidates, they would bring “lots of baggage” to the race, he said.

The announcement last week that Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) would not run against Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may have also bolstered Porter’s position. Several potential candidates have said that if Reid was involved in a tight Senate race, more resources would be available to maximize Democratic turnout throughout the state.

To date, three term-limited state officials — Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller, state Treasurer Brian Krolicki and Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt — have said they are now considering a Senate bid, as has realtor Jack Woodcock. Conservative activist Richard Ziser is the only announced Republican.

Reid’s campaign rejected suggestions that Gibbons’ decision not to run would dampen the chances of the 3rd district nominee.

“Our budget hasn’t changed,” said campaign manager Sean Sinclair. “The amount of money spent will be the same … between $9 [million] and $10 million.”

“I think it’s a winnable seat, and we want to do as best as we can in that seat,” he added.

“We are going to move ahead with an aggressive ground campaign regardless of who runs,” said Rebecca Lambe, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party.

At the moment, a handful of Democrats are considering the 3rd district race, including Nevada Assemblymen David Goldwater and John Oceguera, as well as former state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Henry, who is now a lobbyist. Goldwater and Oceguera, who have both said they will likely make a decision within the next two weeks, admit that taking on Porter will be an “uphill battle.” And Henry, already viewed by many political insiders as more of a long-shot candidate, may have to delay his decision due to family health concerns.

Goldwater, an investment consultant who once worked as a legislative aide to then-Rep. Jim Bilbray (D-Nev.), said he wants to be sure his politics are in line with the district before deciding to run.

“I don’t want to run just to run, I want to be able to win,” he said, emphasizing he was not in a position to spend a lot of his own money on a race.

But Oceguera, a firefighter, may be more amenable to running for the sake of increasing his name recognition in the state.

“Sometimes you have to take a chance even if you aren’t exactly ready in all aspects,” he said.

Billy Rogers of the Democratic polling firm Southwest Group said he plans to conduct a poll of southern Nevada later this month, which will include a breakout of the 3rd district.

“We’ll certainly know then whether Jon Porter is vulnerable or not,” Rogers said.

But Porter, who is well-liked by Nevada’s powerful gaming industry, ranks high in general likability. Few political observers — Republican or Democrat — had anything negative to say about him personally.

“He’s a conservative candidate with a very moderate personality, nobody can vilify him for being an intemperate right winger,” Wark said.

Ralston said that Porter has had a “fairly event-free and error-free first term” and has “done pretty much what a freshman [Member] should do.”

Another possible Democratic challenger is former Assemblyman John Lee, a Mormon who unsuccessfully ran for state controller against Kathy Augustine (R) in the 2002 cycle. Lee has said he would like to return to politics, either as a state Senator or Clark County commissioner, but may have his sights set higher. Also mentioned are Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley (D), Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson and John Hunt, who ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2002 and is currently the subject of a Nevada Division of Investigations probe over alleged campaign finance impropriety.

“We’ve talked to lots of Democrats in Nevada and are confident that we will have a very compelling candidate to run against Porter,” said DCCC spokesman Greg Speed. “We think there’s plenty of time for a candidate to get in and put together a winning campaign.”

Contenders have until May 17, 2004, to file for the race.

Some Democrats may be holding out hope that a female candidate, possibly one outside of the state Legislature, will emerge.

“Harry Reid and others think they need a woman to beat Jon Porter,” Ralston said.

Among the women with whom either the DCCC or Reid associates have reportedly discussed a Congressional bid are KLAS-TV newscaster Paula Francis, former Las Vegas One newscaster Debra Levy, former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy, state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus and Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Gates.

None appears willing to step up to the plate, however.

Any potential challenger will have to contend with Porter’s fundraising prowess. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Porter had more than $300,000 cash on hand.

While the 3rd — which comprises much of the Las Vegas suburbs, as well as Henderson and Boulder City — was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats when the lines were drawn after the 2000 Census, growth has been trending in the GOP’s favor. The district would have narrowly favored Al Gore (D) over George W. Bush (R) in the last presidential cycle, but a majority of its state legislators are Republican.

“Every day more Republicans move into the district, and it gets better and better for us,” crowed Republican pollster Glen Bolger.

Gray said Democrats “have done an absolutely horrible job of giving [Democratic voters] a reason to show up and vote. We don’t have a centralized Democratic machine that makes independent decisions or that can be coordinated to force people into a party line.”

But Democrats hold out hope that the 3rd district’s close numbers coupled with a potentially toxic Bush economy make Porter far from invincible.

“Porter’s constituents have mainstream concerns … and the only thing he’s done to address them is vote for more tax cuts for the wealthy and take his orders from Tom DeLay,” the DCCC’s Speed said.

“I think the … ideology of the district is yet to be written in stone,” added Democratic consultant Dan Hart.

Still, Porter’s campaign is clearly sanguine with the Silver State Congressman’s current political position.

“We’re very pleased with where we are right now,” said Mike Slanker, who chaired Porter’s 2002 election effort and will head it again in 2004. “There’s no big movement out there to unseat Jon Porter.”

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