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Democrats Brace for Disappointment in Nevada

Everything went wrong for Kate Marshall in a Nevada special election race in which she needed everything to go right.

All hope for today handing Democrats a second special election upset this year faded long ago. The Democratic state treasurer is likely to come up well short against Mark Amodei, a former state legislator and state GOP chairman, in the race to replace appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) in the 2nd district.

“Everyone is gearing up for some disappointing results, but not unexpected,” a Nevada Democratic strategist said. “We’ve known this for over a month.”

Strategists from both parties who spoke with Roll Call about the reasons for Marshall’s likely loss cited a terrible climate for Democrats, an unfavorable state Supreme Court ruling, poor polling numbers for President Barack Obama, early spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Marshall campaign’s inability to focus its message coupled with a slow pace out of the gate.

The race’s lack of competitiveness is still a blow to the party going into 2012, especially because the GOP is poised for an upset today in New York, making the Republicans’ House edge one stronger.

The Nevada contest played out in the backyard of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose vaunted Nevada Democratic Party machine opted not to engage its paid turnout effort for a campaign it felt could not seal the deal.

The Reid machine chose instead to conserve its resources for competitive Senate and presidential elections in the state next year. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other outside Democratic groups also could not justify spending money on a race not moving in their direction and for a seat a Democrat has never held.

Party strategists’ long-held belief that a Marshall win was all but impossible was validated by the paltry Democratic early-voting figures that indicated a lack of energy in a district with a 31,000 voter registration advantage for Republicans. Democratic turnout even trailed widely in Washoe County, which a Democrat must carry to win.

Further evidence came Monday in an autodial poll by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which found Amodei leading by 13 points and only three-fourths of Democrats saying they would vote for Marshall.

Amodei media consultant Rob Stutzman said by putting big money in early, the NRCC, which spent $600,000 on the race, built a defense wall that kept the DCCC and other groups from entering the fray. The NRCC’s cutting ads tied Marshall to Obama and Reid while Marshall was doing her best to avoid promoting her party affiliation.

“Marshall became a candidate that couldn’t win in this environment no matter what they would try to do to Amodei,” Stutzman said of the Democratic groups opting out of the race.

With Nevada’s unemployment the highest in the country, NRCC Political Director Mike Shields said the committee thought Reid would put forth an effort to win the district, which Obama lost by fewer than 100 votes in 2008 and which Heller won in 2006 by just 5 points.

“Had we not gone in early to define Marshall, we would’ve been forced to spend even more money and run the risk of an even more competitive race,” Shields said.

Stutzman said another key factor to the race was the fact that Amodei was on the air first. He launched an ad June 20, just days after winning the GOP nomination, that tied the race to the national debt crisis. The ad, which featured images of Chinese troops marching on the Capitol grounds, created a nationwide buzz for Amodei on TV and online.

Marshall wasn’t on the air for another month, and her first ads on July 27 slammed Amodei for sponsoring a tax increase in the state Legislature. The Nevada Democratic strategist said the Marshall campaign’s response missed the mark. Her team tried to raise money by calling the ad xenophobic and fear-mongering, and the strategist said the campaign should have instead said Amodei supports policies that encourage sending jobs to China.

“They had an opportunity to start defining Mark Amodei right out of the gate, and the campaign made a strategic decision that that wasn’t the thing to do,” the strategist said. “By the time they realized it, it was too late.”

The race opened with confusion over the state’s vague election law, as Nevada had never held a special election for a House seat. Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, declared the race would be a “ballot royal,” with an unlimited number of candidates from any party. But the state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the major state parties could select their nominees, thereby ending any Democratic hopes of Marshall running against a split GOP ticket.

The Amodei campaign was also ready and waiting when the Marshall campaign finally launched an ad in early August focusing on Amodei’s support for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan that would overhaul Medicare. It had been successful for Democrats in a surprising May victory in New York’s 26th district and looked like a potentially winning message for the party heading into 2012.

Amodei countered by tying Marshall to the Democratic health care law. By last week, Republican polling showed more voters trusted Amodei on the Medicare issue — thanks in part to Amodei’s mother making a cameo in an ad.

“The big thing is, when this all began it was going to be about Medicare again,” Stutzman said. “I guess if there was a punch line, it’s I think we showed a way to mitigate, if not win, on that issue.”

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