Like the undercard participants at a boxing match, those running for smaller races often count on the strength at the top of the ballot to carry them through. Those larger races, like the Tysons and the Holyfields, bring out the crowds and help focus some attention on the not-so prestigious contests.
This year, however, prospects look grim for Nevada politicians getting much help from the top of the ticket. Although much could change between now and November, the marquee races aren’t shaping up to be very competitive.
Polls have consistently shown Vice President Al Gore trailing George W. Bush statewide. Gore’s campaign has been non-existent in Nevada, and he’s failed to capitalize on the one issue where the polls say he can’t lose — nuclear waste.
While Bush came out with a weak stance concerning the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Gore has been pretty consistent in his anti-dump rhetoric. Neither man has said unequivocally he will veto all attempts to build the dump, but Gore’s pro-environment stance makes him a better fit for repository opponents.
Local Democratic political operatives have been relaying to Gore’s campaign the potential bonanza he could reap from better publicizing his position, so it’s likely he will eventually get the message. Until he does, however, Bush will continue to count the Silver State’s two electoral votes as his.
If Democrats sense their candidate has no chance to win the presidency, then the theory is many of them will stay at home and not vote at all. Therein lies the fear of down-ballot candidates who would benefit from a stronger, more competitive presidential race.
In the absence of a tough presidential contest, is there any other race that will draw voters out? Normally a U.S. Senate race would fill that order. Not this year, however.
Again, it’s too early to make specific predictions, but Democrats have not been happy with the performance of Senate candidate Ed Bernstein. His sluggish campaign has yet to catch fire. His opponent, Republican John Ensign, still enjoys large leads at both ends of the Silver State.
Bernstein did recently begin an ad blitz touting his desire to fight the cost of prescription drugs in the United States. He even led an expedition to Mexico with a busload of senior citizens to purchase low-cost medicine. The jury’s still out, however, on whether this issue will allow him to cut into the double-digit lead Ensign has established.
Adding to the Democrats’ misery is the anti same-sex marriage petition. Although most Democratic candidates aren’t against the measure (they argue current state law is sufficient on the subject), the theory is the ballot question will bring out the state’s most conservative, most religious voters. By the way, these people are likely to be strong Republican supporters.
Again, these are all theories and in the ever-changing world of politics, they may be moot points by November.
So what do the Democrats have going for them? One high profile race and a slew of well liked, highly regarded local public officials. Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley is still leading Republican challenger State Senator Jon Porter by a comfortable margin. Berkley is a tough campaigner who will certainly get her vote out. But Porter has been making slow, steady progress and will be greatly helped by a recent pledge by popular Gov. Kenny Guinn to help unseat Berkley. A Berkley missive criticizing his prescription drug program angered the governor.
Guinn’s popularity numbers hover around 60 to 70 percent in the most recent polls, which means his help could be critical to Porter. If he can erode some of Berkley’s support among persuadable Democrats, then he could get within striking distance in the heavily Democratic district.
While these top-of-the-ticket races are likely to have some impact down-ballot, no one is expecting any changes in the makeup of the Legislature. Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus has a chance to pick up a couple of seats, but she has to beat two veteran Republicans, Sens. Ray Rawson and Mike McGinnis, in order to do it.
Rawson faces a tough challenge from Terry Stanfill, a woman with strong credentials and enormous energy. There’s only a slight voter edge in Rawson’s favor, but he’ll have the most money and a good knowledge of the district and its voters.
The Assembly is predicted to stay in Democratic hands, but a few seats could switch. The Republicans fell far short in their pledge to put up credible candidates in every race, but do have a couple of candidates capable of upsetting incumbents.
One public official who continues to enjoy huge popularity numbers in the state’s largest county is Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. His honor’s approval ratings continue to reach between 75 and 78 percent, staggering figures for any elected leader.
While he continues to deny he has any desire for higher, statewide office – his mantra is he has the best job in the world – Democratic leaders aren’t likely to let it go at that. He’ll certainly get enormous pressure to move up on the food chain (Republicans occupy all but one Constitutional office). Will he succumb?
One of the things that will be checked closely is Goodman’s ability to take votes in Northern Nevada and the rural counties. Will his background as a lawyer to the mob hurt him in these areas? This and other questions will be closely tested before he does anything in 2002.