Odds Are Even for Porter Re-election

Posted April 1, 2008 at 6:44pm

LAS VEGAS — For a political junkie, the best game in Las Vegas isn’t taking place in one of the glitzy and glamorous downtown casinos but rather in the pinwheel shaped 3rd district that makes up most of the city’s growing suburbs.

Of course that’s not to say that the main players in that game aren’t happy to make use of all the amenities “Sin City” has to offer. An interview just off a casino floor or a meeting in the back room of rapper Jay-Z’s new 40/40 Club is all part of a normal day for a Las Vegas-area Congressional candidate.

But if you can stay focused amid a sea of attractive cocktail waitresses and video billboards, you’ll find a hot political race that is turning out to be closer than most daily betting lines in the local sports books.

In recent months, Democrats in Nevada have made much of their surge in voter registration numbers, which has turned a few-thousand-voter registration deficit two years ago into a lead of nearly 41,000 enrolled voters statewide today. And about half of that voter registration lead for Democrats, 20,112 to be precise, can be found in Republican Rep. Jon Porter’s 3rd district.

Take into account that this cycle is looking to be another down year for Republicans nationally and add the fact that Porter eked out a 4,000-vote victory in 2006 despite outspending his little-known opponent 2-to-1, and you might begin to believe the Democratic line that a perfect storm is brewing in the sands of suburban Las Vegas to topple the three-term incumbent.

“Porter is vulnerable in registration in that district; it’s really swung against the Republicans now,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and pundit on Nevada politics. “Porter also has the baggage of a Republican incumbent.”

But Republicans say Democrats’ hopes are just a mirage in the Nevada desert.

Besides, they say, the man that has been tapped by the Democratic establishment to take on Porter, former Clark County prosecutor Robert Daskas, is not exactly a household name in the 3rd district — though many voters would probably know the names of some the high-profile murderers that Daskas has put away for life or on death row.

Nevada Republicans will openly admit that Democrats did a better job of registering new voters during the state’s presidential caucuses in January. But they argue that it’s not like new Republicans aren’t coming into the district. Porter estimates that he sees 120,000 new constituents move into his district every two years.

So while Democrats were able to step up their numbers in a short amount of time in January, Republicans say they have a methodical registration plan in place that will catch them up by Election Day.

‘He’s a Good Guy’

Methodical could also describe Porter’s time in Congress.

Porter acknowledged last week that he’s not the kind of Member who seeks the limelight.

“I stay out of the partisan bickering because that’s not good for the country or Nevada,” he said. “My style is I don’t have a press conference every time I do something for the community. But I would put my record of success in the community against anyone.”

Porter may not have voter enrollment figures on his side, and he may not be beloved in the electorate. But during the lunch rush one day last week at the Coffee Cup restaurant — a diner in the Old Town area of Boulder City about 25 miles outside Las Vegas, where Porter was first elected mayor in 1987 — the Congressman was described as solid if unspectacular.

The Coffee Cup is the kind of place where you can get a great chicken-fried steak, where the omelette special is always good and owner Al Stevens, who has been in town since the late 1970s, is happy to chat about whatever subject happens to come up at the counter.

“I can’t nail down what he’s done fabulously,” Stevens said of Porter. “I don’t hear anything adverse about him though. … Basically he’s a local guy, he’s a good guy.”

Although Stevens strongly disagreed with the necessity of the massive Hoover Dam Bypass project that Porter had spent that morning touring with Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, he said he doesn’t blame Porter for what he calls the mistake of many government officials and agencies who bent to the will of lobbyists and the trucking industry.

“He couldn’t stop it and he couldn’t start it,” Stevens said of the bypass and bridge project that is being built about three miles outside town.

In the end, Stevens and a few others at the lunch counter appeared to be voting more for the Republican brand than for Porter himself.

When it was mentioned that one Democratic strategy in the 3rd district race would likely be to tie Porter close to President Bush a sharp “what’s wrong with that?” was uttered at the lunch counter.

For Stevens, the math of the thing is pretty simple and Porter appeared to be more of an afterthought.

“Any time you get a Democrat in there taxes go up and business goes down,” he said.

Bigger Names Declined to Run

Early on in the election cycle, some Democrats argued that they would be better positioned to take down Porter if they could recruit a candidate with high initial name ID into the race. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leaders spoke to local party titans like Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid — son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) — and state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, who had just come off a failed gubernatorial campaign.

“I talked to the DCCC and so did Rory, and they polled and it showed we could win,” Titus said in an interview last week.

She said that when she spoke with the DCCC, the committee had pegged the race as one of its top priorities, and the district has since been placed on the committee’s “Red to Blue” target list.

“In each case I think it was a personal lifestyle political choice [not to run], it wasn’t an assessment of Democrats’ ability to win in the district,” Titus said.

Titus acknowledged that Daskas came out of nowhere when he got into the race last fall.

“Nobody knew him,” she said. “He has not been involved in Democratic Party politics. … But everybody has gotten on board to support him because there’s a commitment to get rid of Jon Porter. I think Senator Reid would also like to see [Porter] go because he sees him as a potential opponent” in his 2010 Senate reelection campaign.

Not that Harry Reid couldn’t beat Porter, Titus quickly added, “but it’s an aggravation he would rather not have as Majority Leader.”

Playing the Experience Card

Damore said Daskas’ political inexperience may hobble him against a strong fundraiser and campaigner like Porter, who was a mayor and member of the state Senate before being elected to Congress in 2002.

While state and national Democratic resources could help Daskas build up a donor network and help spread his name, Damore said he expects Porter will throw the experience card.

Damore said Porter will likely ask his constituents “‘Who do you want there? Someone who knows and can go to the ropes in Washington and can deal with these economic and foreign policy issues or a guy who’s been the Clark County prosecutor? What’s [Daskas] going to bring to Congress that I don’t have?’”

In a state that has the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation, Porter’s rising seniority on the Ways and Means Committee and Budget Committee could also play into his message of experience in a time of financial instability.

In an interview at his headquarters last week –– a single-family home where college-age supporters were creating voter contact lists for his campaign –– Daskas said Porter will argue experience because he can’t argue results. Daskas embraces the fact that he’s not a politician.

“I’m not a politician, but I have been a public servant for 12 years,” he said. “I walk into court every day, and I’m a voice for victims who otherwise can’t be heard. I think there’s a natural transition to do what I’ve done for 12 years to segue into a seat in Congress. It’s public service on a different level.”

Ante Up

Last weekend, the state Republican party had scores of volunteers knocking on doors in Henderson to begin to dig Porter’s district out of its GOP registration hole.

They are optimistic. But they also have one other reason to look on the bright side. Daskas is facing a primary challenge from a feisty self-funding opponent who, even if he has a little chance of upsetting the party’s favored candidate, may drain him of crucial funds in a primary fight that won’t be decided until mid-August.

Andrew Martin is a wealthy businessman who runs an accounting firm and is an East Coast transplant who just moved to Nevada in 2005.

Martin said he was spurned by Democratic leaders, like the DCCC, when he first approached them about running in the 3rd district. But while party leaders have brushed his candidacy off, it’s hard to ignore the almost $300,000 Martin has put into his race and the approximately $200,000 in cash on hand he said will appear in his first quarter Federal Election Commission report.

By comparison, Porter reported $785,000 in cash on hand at the end of last year and Daskas had $310,000 as of three months ago.

Porter said he knows he’s in for a tough race this cycle, just like he expected his 2006 race to be close despite what most national race watchers thought.

In his race against 29-year-old Tessa Hafen, who was a former aide to Harry Reid, Porter won by just 3,971 votes out of more than 210,000 votes cast.

“It was not a surprise to us; at this time two years ago, we knew it was going to be a 2- or 3-point race,” Porter said. He added that he thinks every Member of Congress should run in an evenly split district because the experience makes him more attuned to the needs of his community.

Daskas said last week that Porter isn’t so much sensitive to his voters needs as he is running scared. He said he intends to let voters know that after Porter’s near-death experience at Hafen’s hands Porter has begun to change his tune with his voting record.

“What we’ve seen is historically [Porter] voted with the Bush administration nearly 90 percent of the time and now he’s begun to moderate his votes,” Daskas said.

While previously opposing the SCHIP expansion bill, Porter voted in favor of the version that came to the floor last fall.

Porter argues that comparing older versions of the bill to the one he voted for would be like comparing apples to oranges. He said his voting patterns haven’t changed but rather the legislation that has made it to the House floor under the Democratic majority has changed, which has occasionally given him the opportunity to vote on measures that he believes will help his district.

Daskas isn’t buying it.

“He’s now apparently trying to distance himself from the Bush administration. What happens if Jon Porter feels safe? … It causes me concern as a constituent which Jon Porter we would get if he were re-elected.”