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As leaders focus on debt negotiations on Capitol Hill, their top political operatives are digging in for the two-month stretch to the special election in Nevada, where the parties have their last chance to road-test their messaging ahead of 2012.
Former Nevada Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei begins as the favorite to win in the 2nd district, which has never elected a Democrat in the 30 years of its existence. But President Barack Obama came within 100 votes of carrying it in 2008, and Democrats see a path to victory for state Treasurer Kate Marshall, with assistance from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The general sense among insiders is that if Amodei wins, the election will have gone as expected in the conservative district. But if Marshall pulls off an upset, Democrats could spin it in any number of directions, including its implications on the Senate and presidential races next year.
The game of expectation-setting is already under way.
“While there is a way she can win by developing a contrast between her and Amodei, I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that this is anything but an uphill battle,” said a Democratic source familiar with Nevada.
The message wars have already begun, and both sides believe they have the upper hand on the debt ceiling issue. The Amodei campaign opened the race running squarely against Obama and Reid, who both have high negatives in this district, according to Amodei media consultant Rob Stutzman.
Democrats say Amodei is willing to gamble Medicare benefits for seniors, a message prominently used in now-Rep. Kathy Hochul’s (D-N.Y.) upset win in a May special election.
“We’re prepared to engage on Medicare,” Stutzman said. “We also think she’s reacted to us defining the race out of the gate about debt, taxes and the economy.”
Amodei began airing his second TV ad this week, which portrays the former longtime state legislator as someone who will stand up to the two Democratic leaders in Washington. He promises to “cut taxes and not increase the Obama debt limit.”
“President Obama and Harry Reid have given us more out-of-control spending, a huge debt, and now they’re pushing for job-killing taxes,” Amodei says in the ad, which is running on network and cable television.
It follows a controversial ad that imagined a world in which Chinese troops march on the Capitol grounds because the U.S. could not pay its debts.
Responding to the most recent ad, Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Zach Hudson said, “Considering Amodei already wants to end Medicare, it’s no surprise that he would gamble with Nevada senior citizens’ Social Security checks now, too.”
Democrats are coming off two special election victories — a closer-than-expected race Tuesday in Los Angeles and Hochul’s win in the Empire State’s 26th district, formerly a Republican-held seat.
Outside money is expected to pour into this race, as it did in the New York contest.
The national parties and groups such as American Crossroads and House Majority PAC, which spent heavily in the New York race, are just now beginning to evaluate and consider what type of resources to devote to the race. The two-month countdown to the Sept. 13 contest began this week.
“Nevada’s 2nd Congressional district is a tough district, but we’re keeping a close eye on it,” House Majority PAC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said. “Voters all across the country are outraged with Republicans’ extremist policies to essentially end Medicare in order to protect billions in tax breaks for millionaires and Big Oil companies.”
In a district where Democrats are outnumbered in terms of registration, the Marshall campaign is looking to make the race a contrast between the two candidates. The campaign has slammed Amodei for leading an effort in the state Senate that resulted in the largest tax increase in state history. The result, it hopes, is that Amodei will lose support among his conservative base and, more importantly, independents.
“With 12.5 percent unemployment Nevadans have a clear choice: Kate Marshall, who will create jobs and protect Medicare and Social Security, or her opponent, who sponsored a billion-dollar tax increase for Nevadans and wants to end Medicare and cut Social Security,” Marshall spokesman James Hallinan said.
Even Republicans concede that Reid, who won last year despite being among the most vulnerable Democrats, has built perhaps the most well-respected state party in the country. But the GOP will continue to tie Marshall to Reid as his hand-picked candidate.
“He’s got quite the machine out there, everyone knows it,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tyler Houlton said. “She shares a lot of views with him. It just makes sense that he would pick someone identical to himself.”
Democrats push back on that by focusing on Marshall’s record as treasurer and her efforts to cut spending and save taxpayer money.