Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, May 27, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The castigation began before he even stepped out of the television studio.
After bumbling through an interview on “Face to Face With Jon Ralston” this month, Democratic congressional hopeful John Oceguera, running in Nevada’s 3rd District, immediately began to take heat for his refusal to answer yes or no to some of the most basic questions.
Ralston asked, “Would you have voted for the Affordable Care Act?”
“I think anything that will put transparency into insurance companies and make health care more affordable is something we ought to work on,” Oceguera answered.
Ralston asked, “Would you have voted for the stimulus?”
“We can go back and rehash 2010 all we want, but I’m looking forward,” Oceguera answered.
The criticism was swift. Within days, Oceguera tried to provide some answers in an interview with Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius.
Oceguera would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for instance, and he would have supported the stimulus.
Although Oceguera’s “Face to Face” interview was a striking example of dodging the issues — even Oceguera admitted it wasn’t his finest moment — he’s hardly the only Nevada politician to duck questions.
Ask Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shelley Berkley about the pending ethics investigation against her and she’ll pivot to talking about the middle class.
Ask her Republican opponent Dean Heller what he thinks of the Republican budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan and he can now point to his two votes for it and one against it.
But candidates running in CD3 are presented with a special challenge.
The district is almost evenly split among registered Republicans and Democrats, making it Nevada’s only swing congressional district. Candidates trying to win over CD3 voters are often forced to stake out a middle position, framing themselves as pragmatic rather than partisan.
Take a look at CD3 voting records and you’ll see similar breaks from party lines. Former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat who held the seat for a single term, for example, was a holdout on the health care law for weeks before she finally voted for it. She also took heat for supporting some Republican-backed measures.
Similarly, U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, Oceguera’s Republican opponent, has broken from his party on several occasions, angering some on the right flanks of the GOP.
But is staking out a middle position the same as not taking a position at all?
The consensus — and Oceguera himself acknowledged this — is no.
“For a far right or a far left candidate, it’s so easy. If you’re far right, it’s no on everything, and if you’re far left, you’re yes on everything,” said former Rep. Jon Porter, who held the seat from 2003-09. “To be in a split district, you have to give it a lot of thought.”
Oceguera said he never intended to dodge the issues, saying he’s tried to move the focus to what he believes voters want to hear about, such as the economy.
“I think you do need to take strong positions to win in this district, and that’s why I’ve staked out some of my priorities,” he said.
The trick, both Republican and Democrat observers said, is to argue the issues on a practical level and stay away — as best you can — from ideological debates.
“It’s kind of what Clinton did in 1992,” Democratic operative Billy Vassiliadis said. “He sat down and asked people what was going on in their lives. You can’t get wrapped up in philosophical discussions. No one wants to sit there and talk about gay marriage and the environment and abortion when they can’t figure out how to pay their mortgage.”
Porter also cautioned against continually trying to play both sides of the issues: “You straddle the fence long enough and you’ll get slivers in both legs.”