Nevada’s Economic Woes Continue to Dog Titus

Posted April 7, 2010 at 3:25pm

Freshman Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) spent most of March taking heat on the Democrats’ health care reform bill. But it is the state of the economy in the beleaguered 3rd district, and not the “yes” vote she ultimately cast on the legislation, that is likely to be the determining factor in her tight re-election contest.

A Republican poll conducted March 24-25 for her challenger, surgeon Joe Heck, found that 54 percent of likely voters viewed economic issues as the biggest problem facing the country, compared with just 9 percent who said health care.

The poll, conducted by Wilson Research Strategies, also found Titus trailing Heck 35 percent to 40 percent, just outside the 4.9-point margin of error. Just over a quarter of voters were undecided and 7 percent supported Barry Michaels, one of three third-party candidates who have filed to run.

Titus has little control over many of the economic and political dynamics working against her — the job losses and foreclosure rates in her suburban Las Vegas district, the big losses the party in power historically faces in midterm elections, the anticipated drop in turnout in 2010 versus 2008 — but she could pay dearly for them.

“Nevada’s unemployment rate is still stubbornly high. It just won’t move off of 13 percent. The foreclosure problem … just shows no sign of letting up. The gaming industry just continues to get whacked,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada at Reno, ticking off the litany of economic challenges facing the region.

Titus, he said, “will bear the blame for much of that” because residents still aren’t seeing the effects of the Democratic-written stimulus package and other economic relief efforts.

“I think she’s going to have to really tout that job relief is coming,” he said, “but that’s going to be a tough sell.”

Even critics acknowledge Titus has been working tirelessly to show constituents she feels their pain and is doing things to alleviate it. She has placed a particular emphasis on the housing crisis.

“We were one of the first Congressional offices to call lenders on behalf of our constituents,” noted spokesman Andrew Stoddard. Titus has also developed her own plan to help with principle reduction, held a number of housing workshops and sent regular letters to the White House urging more action from the administration.

But so far she does not have a lot to show for her efforts. Federal programs to help underwater homeowners have barely made a dent in the foreclosure rate — a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal report on the housing crisis said 75 percent of Southern Nevada home­owners are underwater on their mortgages — and though Stoddard noted a number of examples of where the stimulus package has helped save local jobs, he also acknowledged that the federal government has still “got to do more” on the employment front.

The Republicans’ message against Titus is that not only has she not offered credible solutions, but she has joined with the Democratic leadership in making matters worse with its “big government” agenda.

“This is all a cyclical problem that’s been brought on by Democrats and Republicans spending too much and failing to rein it in,” said Ryan Erwin, an adviser for Heck’s campaign. “There are only two ways to fix it: Either raise taxes — which is the Dina Titus solution — or you can have responsible spending — that is the Joe Heck solution.”

Titus’ support for the health care overhaul, Republicans say, is just more evidence of her willingness to follow Washington Democrats’ lead rather than carve out her own independent stand based on the needs and preferences of her district.

As an emergency room surgeon, Heck has immediate credibility when talking about health care, but Erwin says he can also speak from experience on the economy and national security, thanks to his background as a small-business owner and a military veteran.

And though he has kept his surgery day job while he campaigns, Heck “works as hard at retail politics as anyone I’ve worked with,” Erwin said.

Democrats are seeking to paint Heck as a political opportunist, someone who lacks core beliefs. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has noted that Heck, widely considered a moderate Republican, has begun popping up at tea party events in Nevada and espousing conservative talking points.

Eminent Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston took Heck to task for engaging in overheated rhetoric on health care during a recent interview on Ralston’s “Face to Face” television program.

“I used to consider you a reasonable man,” Ralston said.

Heck denied that he wanted to repeal the whole health care bill.

Wilson Research Strategies’ polling memo predicted “an incredibly well-funded and negative campaign from the Democrats” in an attempt to paint Heck “as an even more unacceptable option.”

But the bigger issue for Heck, observers say, is likely to be whether he can raise the money to compete financially with Titus, who neared $1 million in receipts in 2009. Heck raised $191,000 from the beginning of October, when he switched from the gubernatorial race, to the end of the year. Heck’s campaign will report raising more than $150,000 in the first quarter of the year, but it has yet to complete its final tally.

Heck hasn’t been helped financially by the intense focus on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) re-election contest and the state’s gubernatorial race, both of which feature crowded Republican fields that have sucked up funds.

Reid’s race, however, could cut both ways for the Congressional contest politically. On the one hand, Reid is sure to have a well-funded and massive turnout operation in place, assisted by a well-organized state party operation, that will boost Titus. It is unlikely, however, to match what Herzik deemed “the Obama wave that just swept over Nevada” in 2008.

The state Republican Party, meanwhile, continues to be in disarray, but that shouldn’t dampen GOP energy to send Reid packing, which will likely trickle down to benefit Heck.

“If Joe can fund the race, I believe she will not survive,” said former Rep. Jon Porter (R), who lost to Titus by 5 points in 2008.