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Nevada Race Illustrates National Divide

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
One Democrat knowledgeable about the situation in Nevada said party leaders are upset with former Rep. Dina Titus (above) for running in the state’s 1st district primary against state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, who could significantly mobilize Latino voters and positively affect the statewide elections for Democrats in 2012.

Ex-Rep. Dina Titus is attempting a comeback in 2012. But unlike many former Members, she appears to be waging the battle with mixed support from the Democratic establishment.

The early days of the open-seat race in Nevada's 1st district have focused primarily on how the contest will affect the party's viability in statewide contests.

National Democrats are counting on a robust Latino turnout in Las Vegas to push them to victory in the Senate race and capture the state's six electoral votes for President Barack Obama. There is concern that Titus won't excite that bloc in the general election on the same level that Mexican-born state Sen. Ruben Kihuen (D) could. Kihuen and Titus are the leading contenders in the 1st district Democratic primary, which is likely to determine the next Member from the heavily Democratic district.

Since the state's new Congressional boundaries became law Oct. 27, Las Vegas newspapers have weighed in on the Hispanic voter dynamic, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was lambasted on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate Monday by liberal commentator Hugh Jackson for meddling in the 1st district race.

Reid is officially staying neutral, but two of the top consultants from his re-election campaign last year, media firm GMMB and the Mellman Group polling firm, are now on Kihuen's team, something the candidate made sure to point out in a recent announcement.

Kihuen, 31, who cut his teeth a decade ago knocking on doors for now-Sen. Mark Warner's (D-Va.) gubernatorial campaign, considers Reid a mentor and helped mobilize Latino voters for him in 2010.

The 1st district, based in the urban core of Las Vegas, has a 37 percent Latino
voting-age population by far the highest of the state's four districts.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) is vacating the 1st district seat to run for Senate, and Titus opted to run in the far safer 1st when her home was drawn into it last month. There is some frustration in the party that Titus is bypassing a challenge to Rep. Joe Heck (R), who unseated her last year in the more competitive 3rd district.

"There's good reason why Reid and national Democrats would want to see a young up-and-coming Latino win this race," said one knowledgeable Democrat, noting the importance of the district's Latino voters to the party's statewide electability.

"Ruben is from that district, and the constituents there love him," the source added. "That can be very helpful in turning out the vote for President Obama and Shelley Berkley. Party leaders and activists alike are upset with Dina for making this race about herself and not considering other implications."

Titus, who served in the state Senate for 20 years before running for governor in 2006 and Congress in 2008, compiled a moderate voting record during her term in the House but was washed out in the 2010 national GOP wave. In an interview, Titus said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) told her before the lines were redrawn that she was the Democrats' top candidate to take on Heck.

"Then I got drawn way into the heart of [the 1st district], which includes most of my old Senate seat" and part of her former Congressional district, Titus said. "And since then, they've not tried to pressure me out of there. I've not heard from Democrats saying, 'You have to get out of this race,' or, 'We're going to go against you if you don't get out of this race.'"

Titus said she has the backing of the two highest-ranking House Democrats: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). She added that it would be disappointing if Latinos said they would not vote for Obama or Berkley just because Kihuen is not on the ballot and that it's "presumptuous" for anyone to think that's the case.

"They turned out in the presidential before when Ruben wasn't on the ticket," she noted. In 2008, Latinos accounted for 15 percent of the Nevada vote, and 76 percent voted for Obama, who won the state by 12 points.

Titus would also be facing a primary in the 3rd district if she opted to run there. State Speaker John Oceguera is in and recently announced the backing of Richard Bryan, a former governor and Senator; former Gov. Bob Miller; and former Rep. Jim Bilbray, along with a few dozen current and former state legislators and city council members. The 3rd is the most competitive of the state's four districts, and the incumbent there will likely face close elections for the next decade.

A Berkley spokeswoman said the Congresswoman "is not getting involved in the Democratic primaries for the Congressional races," and the Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

"The primary is in June, and you have all the way until November," Titus said. "We'll probably come back together. Whoever wins will reach out, and whoever loses will certainly not stop being a good Democrat and will try to turn out Democrats for the president and Shelley Berkley."

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