The National Republican Congressional Committee seized an opportunity to define Mark Amodei's opponent, and it appears the early investment has paid off.
With three weeks to go before the Sept. 13 special election in Nevada's 2nd district, both parties are taking a fresh look at the race and re-evaluating their strategies for the stretch run. But even though the race isn't over, Republicans are starting to believe that they've avoided yet another special election loss.
Republicans have lost seven of the last eight competitive special elections, including races in GOP-leaning districts, over the last three years. At least, on paper, the race in Nevada looked like it could be headed for a similar fate.
The seat became vacant when former Rep. Dean Heller was appointed to the Senate, and a small group of local Republicans nominated a longtime state legislator, Mark Amodei. Not only did Amodei have more than a decade of votes to defend, he supported a $1 billion tax increase while in the Legislature. He wasn't regarded as a strong fundraiser and had publicly supported Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) controversial budget, which would make significant changes to entitlement programs including Medicare.
Adding to Republicans' early concerns — the 2nd district is at least a couple of points more Democratic than New York's 26th district, which the GOP lost in a special election three months ago.
So even though Nevada's 2nd has a significant GOP edge in voter registration, party operatives had little faith in their candidate's campaign skills and couldn't afford to let the race get out of hand.
Early private polling in the race showed that even though Amodei represented part of the district in the state Senate and that his opponent, state Treasurer Kate Marshall (D), had been elected statewide, both candidates started the Congressional race unknown and undefined.
The National Republican Congressional Committee seized the opportunity to define Marshall, and it appears the early investment has paid off.
The NRCC went on television in early August through its independent expenditure unit with heavy advertising buys. The television ads sought to paint Marshall as a national Democrat by tying her to President Barack Obama and to use her own words to link her with the state's struggling economy.
The most recent public poll, released last week, showed Amodei ahead of Marshall 48 percent to 35 percent, with two third-party candidates getting another 6 percent of the vote. The poll didn't inspire confidence because it was an automated survey conducted by the GOP firm Magellan Data and Mapping Strategies on behalf of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
Party strategists on both sides of the aisle agree that Amodei starts the final weeks of the race with the advantage, even though they also insist the race is closer than the Magellan margin.
Even though Amodei isn't at 50 percent, Marshall's image appears to be damaged to the point that she is in a fundamentally weaker position than past Democratic special election winners.
Republicans are confident they have driven Marshall's negatives up to the point where she is "upside down," meaning more people have an unfavorable opinion of her (43 percent in the August 15-16 Magellan poll) than a favorable opinion (33 percent). By comparison, Amodei had a 38 percent favorable/36 percent unfavorable rating in the Magellan survey. A new Public Policy Polling poll, sponsored by Daily Kos and Service Employees International Union, will likely be released Tuesday.
But there are some deeper, discouraging signs for Democrats.
With three weeks left in the New York 26th district race, Democrat Kathy Hochul had the positive image while Republican Jane Corwin was upside down, an indicator the GOP was about to lose the seat.
Marshall's weaker position makes it less likely that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or another outside Democratic group gets involved in the race. Of course, there is still time for the DCCC's independent expenditure unit to get up and running, but it's unclear what line of attack the committee would use against Amodei.
The Medicare attacks based on the Ryan budget plan just aren't moving numbers the way they did in New York's 26th district, and targeting Amodei's past support for tax increases also doesn't appear to be working. Marshall's newest ad does not mention either, despite focusing on those weak points earlier in the campaign.
The messaging might be faltering because Marshall has been branded by Republicans as a national Democrat or because Nevada's 2nd district is slightly younger than New York's 26th. But Democrats surely will be investigating why it didn't work because they believe Medicare will be a defining issue in 2012.
The race in Nevada isn't over, but according to one Democratic strategist, the undecided voters are not favoring Marshall. One theory is that Republican voters in Nevada are more conservative than Republican voters in Upstate New York, so the 2nd district is more difficult for Democrats than the presidential numbers reflect.
If the race continues on its current path, the NRCC could be criticized for spending so much money on a race that wasn't particularly close. But GOP strategists believe it's precisely that early spending that prevented the seat from falling into danger in the race's final weeks. Republicans also believe the heavy investment in the special election will save them money they would have had to spend next year trying to defeat a new Democratic incumbent.