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How Will Investigation Affect Shelley Berkley’s Race?

John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Associated Press

Democrats spent Tuesday putting the Ethics Committee investigation into
Rep. Shelley Berkley in the best possible light, even as the case casts a public cloud over the Nevada Democrat’s Senate bid.

The race is taking place in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) backyard, and it could prove decisive to his party’s ability to keep its hold on a chamber likely to be divided by one or two seats.

When asked by reporters Tuesday whether the investigation affects Berkley’s chances to win, Reid said, “No, I really don’t think so.”

Berkley is challenging appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) in a presidential battleground state, and Democratic strategists said the investigation does little to change the fundamental dynamics of the race. But Nevada Republican strategists believe the committee’s decision on Monday may have irreparably damaged Berkley’s outreach to voters beyond her Las Vegas district — swing voters that will ultimately decide the election.

Allegations of wrongdoing have swirled around Berkley since the New York Times in September detailed her push to save a kidney transplant program at a hospital where her physician husband had a lucrative contract and preserve reimbursements for other kidney-care services. The story prompted the Nevada Republican Party to ask the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics to review Berkley’s actions.

The issue has already been highlighted to voters via TV ads across the state. American Crossroads, a GOP-aligned super PAC, launched a significant ad buy last month to broadcast the issue. The Berkley campaign immediately responded with an ad of its own, a sign the campaign has been prepared for these developments for some time.

The latest news of a formal ethics investigation will no doubt be played up even more in ads up until Election Day.

“It will be a defining issue in that race,” Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson said. “And clearly, given what we’ve already done, you can read the tea leaves.”

Democrats argued Tuesday that an ethics cloud has hovered over the race since last fall, and yet no evidence has surfaced that Berkley has been hurt by it.

“Republicans have been trying to make this an issue for nearly a year, and it hasn’t made a dent in the polls,” Democratic strategist Ed Espinoza said.

Zac Petkanas, a senior communications adviser to the Nevada Democratic Party and a former top aide to Reid, said no investigation will alter the fact that the economy will be atop voters’ minds in November.

“In a state struggling with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, this race will be about one thing: which candidate will stand up for Nevada’s middle-class families,” Petkanas said.

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