Berkley on Nevada Senate Bid: ‘I’ve Paid My Dues’

Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:59pm

Rep. Shelley Berkley says that even though national Democrats are openly talking with others about Nevada’s open Senate race, she expects the party to defer to her when it comes time to pick a contender.

Nevada and Washington, D.C., sources said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has concerns with Berkley’s candidacy and isn’t sure she would be the strongest candidate. That’s one reason Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil traveled to the Silver State last month to meet with three state officials about their interest.

The Republicans already have their candidate, Rep. Dean Heller, who is unlikely to face a significant primary challenge. Berkley, who told Roll Call that she would make a decision by this summer whether to run for the seat being vacated by embattled Sen. John Ensign (R), dismissed the DSCC’s meetings.

“I’ve paid my dues. I’ve worked really hard. I think they have a good deal of trust and faith in me to do the right thing,” Berkley said in an interview. “They know if I do this, it’s for all the right reasons, and they’ll defer to me.”

Berkley added: “There’s no promises in this business, so what looks like a sure bet to me could not be six months from now. I’d like to know going into this, if I’m going to give up a seat that I love to run for this, I want to have a good faith belief that it’s possible to win.”

Ensign held the 1st district seat that Berkley now represents before he ran for the Senate in 1998. She hired the Mellman Group to conduct a statewide poll, the results of which are expected soon, and she is traveling throughout the state as she decides whether to run.

But the DSCC met with several attractive candidates who are waiting in the wings: Secretary of State Ross Miller, Treasurer Kate Marshall and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is considered the favorite of the three. The Congresswoman acknowledged that each would be a strong statewide candidate but said they are deferring to her until she makes an announcement.

“Any one of them could have stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to do this no matter what she does,’ but they haven’t. People really like me,” Berkley told Roll Call.

Just as he defers to committee chairmen in the Senate, Reid is similarly letting Berkley explore her own decision before he considers whether to weigh in, Democratic sources confirmed. But Reid is the pre-eminent Democratic force in Nevada, and sources predicted he will ultimately get involved in order to win the seat as he also fights to protect his party’s majority status in the Senate.

“At the end of the day, this is a decision that’s going to be made by Reid; who he anoints is going to have two or three steps up on everyone else,” a senior Democratic official said.

Nevada Democratic insiders acknowledged that Reid does not have total confidence that Berkley is the best statewide pick.

The seven-term Congresswoman is, according to Nevada political observers, the perfect Representative of the 1st district that encompasses Las Vegas. She is an advocate of liberal causes and a champion of the gaming industry. Still, some worry that Berkley, who embodies her hometown so much that she wears gambling-themed jewelry, may not appeal to the conservative, Mormon electorate.

“The big question is whether northern Nevada voters will be comfortable voting for a Jewish woman from Las Vegas,” one Nevada political follower said.

However, Las Vegas and the surrounding area in southern Nevada make up an enormous share of the overall statewide vote totals.

Berkley raised nearly $2.2 million for her re-election last cycle and said that while she has not been elected statewide, she still holds a high profile and strong name ID in the state. She acknowledged, however, that winning a Senate race would be an uphill battle, as it was for Reid in 2010. But Nevada will gain one House seat in reapportionment, and if Berkley’s district lines are significantly changed when redistricting is done this summer, she may be swayed to leap for the statewide bid.

While potential candidates hang behind the scenes, so far Reid has also largely stayed out of the process.

Berkley was a staunch supporter of Reid on the campaign trail during his battle last year against GOP nominee Sharron Angle for a fifth term. It wasn’t a new assignment for Berkley, who worked on Reid’s first state Assembly race in 1968 when she was a high school senior. The two remain “strong political allies and friends,” Berkley said.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said, “There’s a path to victory” in Nevada, particularly because President Barack Obama carried the state with 55 percent in 2008 and will be on the top of the ticket again in 2012. And while Berkley mulls her decision, Reid will “give her the space she needs to make the best decision for her and for the people of Nevada.”

DSCC spokesman Matt Canter said in a statement that the party is “well-positioned to pick up the Nevada Senate seat” and wouldn’t indicate the committee’s preference.

But Republicans pounced on Cecil’s visit, charging it was a telltale sign that Democrats are worried Berkley would not be the best choice to run against Heller, who announced his entry into the race this week.

“Given the fact that national Democratic operatives recently made a highly publicized recruiting trip out to Nevada, it sounds like they don’t have a great deal of confidence in a Shelley Berkley candidacy,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We’d be curious to hear their thoughts of why that is.”