Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006 | 7:46 a.m.
Jill Derby is making history.
With a little more than a week to go before Election Day, the Democrat running for U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons' seat in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District remains competitive, a first in the reliably Republican stronghold.
Recent polls have shown the race either in a statistical dead heat or Derby within striking distance of Republican Dean Heller.
Political experts attribute the unprecedented competitiveness not only to the anti-Republican mood across the country but also to Heller's toothless campaign following a primary that essentially bankrupted his campaign coffers.
Ironically, winning the GOP primary in August put Heller at a distinct disadvantage.
He spent about $1 million in the primary, narrowly turning back a strong challenge from Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who was supported by the conservative Washington-based Club for Growth. Heller won the primary by only 421 votes.
Derby, on the other hand, was unopposed in the Democratic primary.
That allowed her to hit the campaign trail and the airwaves early with a series of ads emphasizing her rural roots and political independence, defining herself before Heller got the chance to try to cast her as a liberal Democrat.
That head start, political experts say, continues to make the difference.
"They're some of the best ads I've seen this cycle," said Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "She's successfully defined herself as an outsider. She fits the district."
Still, analysts stop short of calling the race a tossup, mostly because of the district's lopsided Republican voter registration advantage. The GOP holds a 47 percent to 34 percent registration edge - 48,000 more possible voters - over Democrats.
In recent weeks, Heller has been trying to make up for lost time, with plenty of help from the National Republican Campaign Committee, which recently started running an attack ad that bills Derby as - you guessed it - "too liberal."
The negative ad, along with two others produced in part by Heller's campaign, stands in stark contrast to Derby's folksy, friendly tone.
"Heller had to go with a much harder edge right away because he was late," said Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist. "That has caused problems."
While Heller benefits from name recognition as Nevada's secretary of state, he has yet to clearly introduce himself as a congressional candidate to the district's voters, he said.
"Heller's a good candidate in an overwhelmingly Republican district, and this race is within the margin of error," said Herzik, a registered Republican. "That should tell you everything you need to know about the tough road Republicans are facing this year."
In another sign of just how competitive this race has become, the national parties are on track to spend more than $400,000 each for advertisements in Nevada's 2nd District.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $177,400 on a media buy this week just to slam Heller. And Republicans are pushing back. For the second time in as many months, President Bush is set to campaign for Heller, this time on Thursday in Elko.
"This race is so much closer than anybody would have predicted eight months ago," Herzik said.
The question now is, will Derby add a major chapter to the 2nd District's political history - or end up as simply a footnote?