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Key to Nevada Senate Seat Lies in ‘Battlegroundsville’

Contest Could Come Down to Who Can Make Inroads In Washoe County

President Barack Obama landed in Reno, Nev., last Friday, just 12 hours after leaving a glitzy fundraiser hosted by actor George Clooney in Los Angeles.

Reno is less glamorous than its larger, Southern California neighbor. But the population heart of Northern Nevada’s Washoe County is the center of gravity in the Democrats’ fight for the Silver State. The state’s six electoral votes could determine who wins the White House, while the Senate race between appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) could tip the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

“Battlegroundsville” is how Nevada Assemblyman Pat Hickey, a Reno Republican, described Washoe County.

“Washoe has become the swing county in a key swing state,” Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston wrote Sunday. “And because of its strange, occasionally mercurial demographic mix, it is a tough nut to crack for major party candidates, no matter their affiliation.”

On his Reno campaign swing, Obama visited the home of a couple helped by a federal mortgage refinancing program. This stop came on the heels of Berkley deciding to air the first two television ads of her Senate campaign in Northern Nevada. Berkley has spent about $160,000 on Reno airtime during the first three weeks of May. The ads focus on her work on veterans issues, which often appeal to voters across party lines.

Berkley is well-known in Las Vegas, which she has represented in the House for seven terms. But Washoe County voters live almost 500 miles away and are unfamiliar with her. Democrats concede that Berkley chose the Northern Nevada market to launch her advertising because she must make inroads there to unseat Heller, who is based in Carson City, adjacent to Washoe County.

“While she is no stranger to Reno or Washoe County, they may not be as familiar with her legislative work,” said Zac Petkanas, a senior communications adviser at the state Democratic Party. “Which is why it’s not only that she’s going up in Reno, but it’s about some significant accomplishments that she’s had on an issue that she has championed: veterans issues.”

In 2008, Obama won Nevada by 12 points, including a 12.6-point win over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Washoe County. In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) won re-election by almost 6 points, including a 5.1-point victory over former Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R) in Washoe County. The Berkley campaign might examine those two elections for a county-by-county formula for success. Of course, Berkley is running against a sitting Senator who previously represented Northern Nevada in the House — not another Angle, who was polarizing even within her own party.

Re-creating Reid’s 2010 performance could be difficult for Berkley. The Majority Leader won more than 54 percent in Las Vegas’ Clark County, where two-thirds of voters reside, and won Washoe County with just less than 50 percent. Berkley could have trouble matching Reid’s performance in the rural counties as well. So unless she can eclipse Reid’s mark in Clark County, the Congresswoman must stay competitive in Washoe County. Republicans say doing so will not be easy for Berkley.

“She’s just not well-known up there,” former Gov. Bob List (R) said. “And I think she’s got an uphill battle ahead of her to win this race, from the beginning. That being the situation, you can’t start too early.”

Latino turnout will be crucial for Berkley, particularly in Clark County.

Latino voters accounted for 15 percent of the electorate in 2008, with Obama winning 76 percent of the vote, and 16 percent of the electorate in 2010, when Reid took 69 percent.

Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez, who is assisting Berkley’s outreach to the Latino community, said the effort to register and mobilize Latino voters this cycle is as intense as it was in the past two cycles. Notably, Ramirez discussed Berkley’s expected success with Latinos as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes hope for success in Washoe County.

“I think we’ll be closer to 17 percent [turnout] this cycle,” Ramirez said. “Berkley seems to be inheriting and marshaling the same coalition that Harry Reid built in 2010, at least among Hispanic voters. If that holds and she competes in Washoe County, it’s a good opportunity for her.”

Washoe County is located in the northwest corner of the state, bordering California to the west and Oregon to the north, and is in the 2nd district, geographically the largest Congressional district in the country in a multi-Member state. Heller vacated that seat last year after being appointed to the Senate, leaving what appeared to be a possible pickup opportunity for Democrats.

But now-Rep. Mark Amodei (R) won the September special election by almost 22 points, including a 10-point victory in Washoe County, over state Treasurer Kate Marshall (D). It wasn’t exactly a springboard to November for Berkley, but Marshall said the two situations are not comparable.

“It’s not the same environment, and it’s also a general election race in a presidential year,” Marshall said. “I outraised my opponent, but I couldn’t compete with the outside interests coming in. I think the two will be evenly matched.”

Berkley and Heller ended March with similar cash-on-hand totals, Berkley with $4.4 million and Heller with $4.3 million.

Heller had mixed results in Washoe County in his first two House elections, victories over Jill Derby (D). He lost the county in 2006 and barely won it in 2008. But Heller has been running there for almost 20 years, including being elected statewide three times as secretary of state.

“Northern Nevadans know Dean Heller. They’ve voted for him even in tough years for Republicans like 2008,” Heller consultant Mike Slanker said. “Shelley Berkley will be hard-pressed to make a dent in his support there.”

Hickey, the GOP Assemblyman from Reno, said Republicans certainly have a “slight advantage” in Washoe County, and he believes Heller and Mitt Romney will carry the county. But, he said, “I think it will be extremely competitive and probably, when all is said and done, quite close.”

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