Place All Future Bets on Rep. Porter

Sophomore Appears to Have Hold on His Competitive District

Posted November 17, 2004 at 6:37pm

After freshman Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) shellacked former casino chief Tom Gallagher (D) on Election Day, Democrats may have to rethink their future chances of winning the Silver State’s seemingly competitive 3rd district.

The suburban Las Vegas district sprouts out in a sloppy Y-shape east, west and south of Sin City. It was drawn ostensibly to be competitive when Nevada won a third Congressional seat following the last reapportionment.

But Gallagher’s defeat is the Democrats’ second straight disappointment there, and one analyst thinks their chances of capturing the seat have waned.

Although voter registration breaks almost 50-50 Democrat and Republican, Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas Sun columnist and Nevada political expert, says data does not reveal the district’s true nature.

“It’s very difficult in that district, the way that it’s drawn, for a Democrat to win,” he said. “All the growth is in the Republican areas and [Republicans] knew that when they drew it” in 2000.

“It’s also a Republican-performing district,” Ralston added. “The independents and Democrats are more conservative and Republicans have out-performed their registration [numbers] historically.”

The district narrowly went to Al Gore over George W. Bush in 2000, 49 percent to 48 percent.

Congressional district breakdowns on the presidential race are not yet available for 2004, and looking at Clark County numbers — the 3rd is entirely within Nevada’s most populous county — is deceiving because it includes Democratic-leaning Las Vegas.

Nonetheless, a look at the last few elections seems to bear out Ralston’s point.

Besides Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) win over Bush 52 percent to 47 percent in Clark County and the drubbing Sen. Harry Reid (D) gave his underfunded and relatively unknown challenger, Richard Ziser (R), the area does seem to lean Republican.

Porter defeated Gallagher 54 percent to 40 percent. In 2000, he trounced the Democrats’ ethically challenged candidate, Dario Herrera, 56 percent to 37 percent.

The county gave Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) a whopping 65 percent in 2002 and also gave heavy margins of victory to all the other Republican candidates for statewide office that year.

A sliver of Clark County lies within the 2nd district, which is held by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R), while the 1st, the Las Vegas seat held by Rep. Shelley Berkley (D), is entirely within the county. Both easily won re-election and carried Clark County in 2004.

“Both parties have to face facts — none of those Congressional incumbents can be beaten,” Ralston said.

Republicans agree that Porter’s decisive sophomore win basically gives him a seat for life.

“As long as Jon Porter is there, we’re really not going to have to worry about it anymore,” said Chris Paulitz, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman. “He did an amazing job. He absolutely blew Gallagher out of the water. It was not even close to being competitive.”

Paulitz was not ready, however, to permanently mark Nevada’s 3rd district in the GOP column.

“This is a district that Al Gore won; it’s definitely a swing district,” he conceded. “Without Porter, it’s right back to a swing district. It’s a tight district in a tight state.”

Despite Gallagher sinking about $700,000 of his own money into his losing cause, Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sees his party having a real shot at winning the seat that has eluded them for two cycles.

New-voter registration numbers favor Democrats, Speed said.

“The registration has gotten more Democratic, not less, since 2002,” he added. “And we think 2006 is going to be a very good year for Democrats in classic swing districts like Nevada 3. Jon Porter has done nothing over the last two years to show he is going to be anything but a rubber stamp for [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the ethically challenged Republican House leadership, and another strong challenger will do very well in 2006.”

Some Democrats may also take solace in blaming their failure not on the district demographics but on their candidate.

Porter did an excellent job of effectively separating Gallagher from his base by hammering his tenure at the former Park Place Entertainment, Ralston said.

Republicans painted Gallagher as a carpetbagger who only moved from Lake Tahoe to Henderson to run for Congress.

They also made much of his decision to lay off service-industry employees during Las Vegas’ post-Sept. 11, 2001, tourism slump while collecting a bonus worth millions. Gallagher, Ralston said, did not adequately fight back.

“That’s what killed him,” he said.