House Republicans are largely on defense in 2018, but they see a bright spot in Nevada’s 3rd District. And they believe that spot is even brighter now that the Democratic incumbent is running for Senate.
Rep. Jacky Rosen’s decision to challenge GOP Sen. Dean Heller opens up the Nevada Democrat’s competitive seat. Operatives from both parties expect the House race to once again be one of the most competitive — and expensive — in the country.
Republicans were targeting the seat before Rosen announced her Senate run. And an open seat could eliminate some of the hurdles that come with challenging an incumbent.
But Democrats say they have a better chance of holding the seat thanks to the energy on their side and their recent success in the Silver State.
For both sides, the key to winning is landing the right candidate.
Campaign operatives might also be experiencing a bit of deja vu. Rosen’s predecessor, GOP Rep. Joe Heck, vacated the seat last year to run for Senate. And, just like last year, Republicans could once again be facing a contested primary, while Democrats have their eye on a woman who is a political outsider.
Rosen, a software developer and synagogue leader when she ran for the 3rd District, was a political newcomer last cycle. Democrats are looking for a similar dynamic as they recruit again.
“This cycle in general, folks that aren’t associated with any type of government body are probably a little bit better,” said one Democratic operative who has worked in Nevada. He noted the presence of a strong anti-government sentiment in the country.
Democrats most often point to philanthropist Susie Lee as a potential contender. Lee, board chairwoman of the Nevada chapter of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that focuses on keeping students enrolled, was recruited to run in the 3rd District last cycle. But she opted for the 4th District instead, which is more Democratic-leaning, and finished third in the primary behind now-Rep. Ruben Kihuen.
According to multiple sources, she is now considering a run in the 3rd District and has spoken with national Democrats including EMILY’s List. That group, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights, endorsed Lee in 2016.
If Lee decides not to run, Democrats “might be at a place of trying to find the next Jacky Rosen who nobody knows about,” the Democratic strategist said.
No other candidate, the strategist said, would be likely to “automatically have a fundraising network, and automatically have some name ID.”
“That’s what Susie has built up,” he said.
Other Democrats suggest there are other options. Last cycle, a handful of potential candidates passed on running before Democrats landed on Rosen. And Democrats say Rosen’s win last year proved they could win the seat, which would help with recruitment this year.
“There are many qualified people who can run for this seat,” said former Rep. Steven Horsford, a Democrat who represented the 4th District from 2013 to 2015. “I don’t anticipate that there will be a shortage of people that are interested.”
Operatives pointed to state Sens. Nicole Cannizzaro and Joyce Woodhouse as possible contenders if Lee doesn’t run. One operative also named Teresa Lowry, a former assistant district attorney who unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate in 2014. But Lowry said in a brief interview that she wasn’t planning to run.
“Democrats will soon have a strong candidate in this seat, who will build on Democrats’ strong past performances in Southern Nevada and win in 2018,” said Drew Godinich, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
A GOP primary
On the Republican side, candidates could face a primary.
State Sen. Scott Hammond filed paperwork to run earlier this month. Hammond had decided to run before Rosen launched her Senate campaign, according to a source with knowledge of his decision.
Hammond, a high school teacher before he ran for the Nevada Assembly, has focused on education issues in the Legislature.
His campaign has been in contact with the National Republican Congressional Committee, but so has another potential contender: professional golfer Natalie Gulbis.
The Nevada Independent first reported last month that she had met with Republicans in Washington, and a source confirmed she met with the NRCC.
Gulbis supports President Donald Trump, who carried the district by 1 point according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. She spoke at the Republican National Convention last summer.
Perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, who was the GOP nominee for the district last year, is considering a run. So is former Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy — who is also eyeing the 4th District, which he represented from 2015 to 2017. Two GOP sources also said Lynda Tache, president and founder of Grant a Gift Autism Foundation, is weighing a run.
A swing seat?
Operatives from both parties described the 3rd District as a swing seat, though Republicans have held it for 12 of the 14 years since it was created after the 2000 census.
But the district is competitive. Outside groups spent a whopping $15.6 million on the 2016 race — the most outside money spent on a House race last cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Democrats have a slight advantage in voter registration, but independent and unaffiliated voters make up roughly 25 percent of voters. The district, in the southern tip of Nevada just south of Las Vegas, is mostly white with sizable Asian and Hispanic populations.
While Trump carried the district, Rosen defeated Tarkanian by 1 point. Democratic operatives credited her ability to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans.
Rosen’s decision to run for the Senate means Democrats don’t have a candidate with the natural incumbent advantages, such as name recognition, fundraising ability and a battle-tested team.
“This was a top Republican pickup opportunity even with Rosen running for re-election,” NRCC spokesman Jack Pandol said. “The congresswoman vacating the seat only increases our chances of being able to flip it back into the Republican column.”
Democrats were not too concerned about Rosen vacating her seat, since they needed a strong contender to take on Heller, the only Republican running for re-election next year in a state carried by Hillary Clinton. Former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, a godfather of sorts in Nevada politics, encouraged Rosen to run for the Senate. It is not clear if Reid is personally involved in recruiting again for the 3rd District.
It could be several weeks before candidates emerge. But Democrats are optimistic that their statewide success in 2016 and energy on the ground will lead to victory again in 2018.
But the NRCC’s Pandol suggested Democrats may have a hard time finding another political outsider who can win the district.
“I think there is doubt that Sen. Reid will be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat twice in a row,” he said.