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May 28, 2015

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Dina Titus, Joe Heck trying to avoid pitfalls of past campaigns

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Rep. Dina Titus smiles during a visit at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009.

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Joe Heck

Sun Coverage

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Dina Titus lost the 2006 governor’s race after her opponent characterized her as “Dina Taxes,” a tax-and-spend politician who wants to grow government on the backs of taxpayers.

Joe Heck lost his 2008 Senate re-election bid after his challenger told voters he was a special-interest shill, more concerned about industry than individuals.

Similar attacks are popping up in this year’s race between Titus and Heck for the 3rd Congressional District seat, but the candidates appear to have learned from the past. And both are working hard to redefine themselves, sometimes in contrast to their voting records.

Heck, considered a moderate Republican while in the state Senate, has swung more to the right since his days in the Legislature. His conservative proposals — he advocates dismantling the Education Department and creating optional private Social Security accounts — are likely an attempt to capitalize on the Tea Party wave that’s sweeping America.

Titus, the Democratic incumbent, is taking a step back from her party, distancing herself from the Washington leaders whom many voters blame for the failing economy. In the Legislature, Titus served as the face of her party as minority leader for 15 years.

“This is a good year not to have a record,” Democratic consultant Billy Vassiliadis said.

Titus is trying to define herself as a politician of the people. She recently held a yard sale for constituents at her campaign headquarters and has hosted events to highlight the importance of healthy meals for children and car seats for infants. Her television commercials (the ones not attacking Heck) feature happy homeowners thanking Titus for saving their houses from foreclosure.

“My opponent is using the Republican talking points,” Titus said. “We’re focusing on issues in the district, serving the people here.”

During her first congressional race, two years ago, Titus billed herself as an “independent voice for Nevada” and branded her opponent, Republican Jon Porter, as a “rubber stamp for President Bush’s failed policies.” It was an easy argument to make as the challenger.

Now as the incumbent, Titus must separate herself from the administration and friends who helped her get into office.

Heck likes to remind people that Titus has voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time, citing a Washington Post analysis. (Even so, that put Titus at 172 out of 435 members for party unity.)

The Titus campaign prefers to quote the findings of the National Journal, which assigned Titus a “liberal” score of only 59 percent. That number implies far more independence.

It’s no coincidence that Pelosi hasn’t stumped for Titus, as President Barack Obama has for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and as Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, did for Titus in 2008. With voter sentiment leaning Republican, a Pelosi visit could do more harm than good for Titus, a political-science professor.

“Dina Titus is desperately running away from her party in an obvious effort to rebrand herself,” Heck said. “Nancy Pelosi and the Washington, D.C., Democrat spin machine is telling Dina to hide from her record.”

Titus insists she hasn’t asked Pelosi to stay away.

“It’s not that we’re distancing ourselves,” Titus said. “It’s who we can bring in that can say something about the district and our work.”

Heck, meanwhile, is keeping his distance from some of his GOP colleagues — namely U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle — while adopting much of the Tea Party rhetoric she uses. It’s a decidedly more conservative stance than he took in the Legislature, but one he hopes will not alienate independent voters.

Indeed, Heck has been endorsed by the House Conservatives Fund, whose chairman says the group supports “hard-core conservatives.”

“When he was in the state Legislature, he was Mr. Moderate, willing to compromise, solve problems,” said David Damore, a political scientist at UNLV. “But he sort of fell under the sway of the Tea Party folks.”

Take education, for example. During his 2008 Senate re-election campaign, Heck favored deconsolidating the Clark County School District to improve accountability and give greater control to teachers, principals and parents. He argued that education was not being addressed in any original way in Carson City.

Now Heck, like Angle, advocates dismantling the federal Education Department as a Cabinet-level agency, saying education decisions are best left to the states.

As a candidate for governor in 2009, Heck initially declined to sign a pledge by Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group that advocates lower taxes, that would bind him to opposing any tax increase. But a month after abandoning his gubernatorial campaign and entering the 3rd Congressional District race, Heck signed the document. Americans for Tax Reform is spending $600,000 to campaign for him.

“He plays to whatever audience he’s talking to,” Titus said. “With the Tea Party, he supports Angle. When he wants to appeal to independents, he tries to couch it.”

Heck denied changing positions and pointed out that he was ranked the third most conservative member of the state Senate.

“I have always been a very pragmatic lawmaker, unafraid to cross party lines, but have never wavered from my conservative beliefs,” Heck said. “While I consider myself a conservative, the most important quality of any representative is consistently doing what is right, and I am proud that I’ve been able to work with Democrats and Republicans to cut through the partisan gridlock that makes government so ineffective and unappealing.”

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