Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 | 7:25 a.m.
Jill Derby doesn't want to cut and run in Iraq. She's against amnesty for illegal immigrants. She says her opponent is a "big taxing liberal." And if elected to Congress, this daughter of a Nevada rancher would cut wasteful government spending and restore fiscal discipline.
Quick: Guess which political party she belongs to?
You'd be hard pressed to tell from her tough talk and rural-themed campaign ads, but Derby is the Democrat in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District race.
In any other year she'd be seen as little more than the token sacrificial lamb against Republican Dean Heller in the 2nd District, a GOP stronghold that covers the vast majority of the state outside Las Vegas and its suburbs.
But this year is different, with a variety of factors putting the state's safest House seat in play for the first time in a decade:
"I think the national political environment makes even what seems like a safe Republican seat a bit dicey this year," said Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
All of this has Heller, Nevada's outgoing secretary of state, running away from the Republican caucus he hopes to join. He says Republicans in the "do-nothing" Congress have failed. He's touting his efforts to clean up campaign-finance and election laws. And if elected, Heller, a former stockbroker and financial consultant from Carson City, says he would work to end the partisan bickering in Washington.
In short, both candidates are fighting for the title of "true conservative."
For Democrats, who are hoping to capitalize on anti-incumbent sentiment and an unpopular president in this fall's elections, Derby represents their best hope in years to capture the seat, which has been held by a Republican since it was created in 1982.
Still, it's a daunting - and some say impossible - challenge. "Jill Derby can't win," said Ryan Erwin, a Nevada Republican consultant and former executive director of the state Republican Party. "The math just doesn't work."
Republicans hold a 47 percent to 34 percent registration edge - 48,000 more possible voters - over Democrats in the district. To win, Derby must compete for votes in rural Elko and White Pine counties, where President Bush crushed John Kerry in 2004 by as much as 58 percentage points.
None of Gibbons' House contests was close, typified by his landslide re-election in 2004 with 67 percent of the vote. In other words, as one political operative put it, Derby is running "where Democrats go to die."
Perhaps that's why Derby doesn't mention her party affiliation in her campaign ads or on her Web site, instead labeling herself as a "strong, independent voice for Nevada values." Asked about that absence, Derby said her rural heritage - she's a fourth-generation Nevadan, raised on a ranch - and nonpartisan leadership experience over the past 18 years as a university regent trumped her political party.
And then, as if to allay any remaining fear in the largely conservative electorate, she goes a step further. "I'm a Nevada Democrat, not a California Democrat," Derby said. "Nevadans are independent. I'm independent. And I'm not going to Washington to be a rubber-stamp, party vote."
In a vast district that encompasses 105,000 square miles, Derby hopes that message will resonate with enough dispirited Republicans in the next six weeks to put her over the top on Nov. 7.
"People will split a ticket if they feel that they know the candidate," she said. "It's not party first in Nevada. People vote for the person."
That strategy has worked well for Democrats in some of the country's reddest states, particularly those in the Rocky Mountain West, where Democrats made their only real gains in the last general election. Twelve of the nation's 22 Democratic governors are in states won by Bush in 2004.
Derby's rural sensibility and conservative politics have caught the attention of the national Democratic Party, which is lending financial and strategic support .
"This is a different year for Democrats," said Adrienne Elrod, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "And Jill Derby is the absolute perfect Democrat to run in this district." (The National Rifle Association gave her an "A" rating.)
Party leaders also are pulling out the stops for Derby. According to a report in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Sen. John Kerry recently raised $18,000 for Derby through his 3 million-member e-mail list.
UNLV political scientist David Damore said that while the sour national mood toward Republicans sets up a closer race this year, it won't be enough to turn the district blue. "In that district, you need a hell of a wave," Damore, a Democrat, said. If anything, he said, the political atmosphere could force Heller to spend more money.
Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist, agrees. A Democratic victory, he said, depends on either a large Republican defection or considerable voter fatigue. "I don't see either one of those happening," said Herzik, a Republican.
Still, Heller, perhaps sensing some vulnerability, also is playing up his independence. "I'm a Nevadan first, a Republican second," he said.
"Nevadans are very independent voters," he said. "If they have to jump party lines, they will do that. I don't count on having an edge. I think this race is going to be close."
An expensive and bruising GOP primary, which Heller narrowly won by 421 votes, has made the race more competitive. While Derby, who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination, raised funds and hit the campaign trail, Heller was draining his war chest fighting off a strong primary challenge from Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who was backed by the conservative Washington-based Club for Growth.
The group pumped $880,000 into Angle's campaign, bringing her just short of victory by questioning Heller's commitment to fiscal conservatism. (In 1991, Heller voted to support two-thirds of an eventual $300 million tax increase. He says it was needed for schools.)
In the aftermath, Angle questioned the legitimacy of Heller's victory, filing a lawsuit in state court seeking a new election that cast a cloud over the outcome for weeks. To make matters worse, Paul Adams, chairman of the state Republican Party, supported Angle's election challenge. Although Angle eventually dropped the suit, the damage was done, costing Heller time and money.
As of July 26, the end of the last federal campaign finance reporting period, Derby had raised $183,000 more than Heller, who spent $108,000 of his own money on his campaign.
Since the August primary, Derby's financial edge has grown. Heller estimates that he has been outraised 2-1 by Derby since the primary.
The financial disparity leaves Heller in the awkward position of running against the Republican establishment in Washington while accepting fundraising help from its leader, Bush, who is to appear in Reno on Oct. 2 to help raise money for Heller.
While many Republicans across the country, particularly those in tough races, are trying to distance themselves from Bush, Heller is embracing him.
The move carries political risk. According to a SurveyUSA tracking poll released last week, Bush's approval rating in Nevada was 34 percent - 5 percentage points lower than his national average in the same poll and 10 points lower than his rating in a USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week. The poll, which surveyed 600 adults in the state, had a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.
Still, Heller says the financial reward of the president's visit outweighs any political risk.
"I have a lot of catching up to do," he said. "I'll take the bad with the good."
He added: "I think it would be a mistake to walk away. This is the president. This is the leader of my party." Democrats, he said, committed a tactical blunder in 1998 when, in that year's midterm elections, they shunned President Bill Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Some view Bush's visit as another sign of just how competitive the 2nd District race has become. "This seat is in play," Gary Gray, a longtime Democratic consultant, said. "If it wasn't, President Bush wouldn't be visiting."
Adams dismisses that theory, saying that while Bush's visit will raise much-needed funds for Heller, it will energize the Republican base and unite the party after a divisive primary.
He said the visit also would send a message to Democrats, who recently moved Nevada to the No. 2 spot on their presidential nomination calendar in 2008. "It's a statement by the president that this is still our state," Adams said.
Adams, while acknowledging the race as competitive, downplays Derby's chances. "It's not something that can be phoned in. Dean has to work hard," he said. "But I don't see this seat as being in play."
For voters willing to look beyond party affiliation, the 2nd District race poses a challenge.
Neither candidate has the type of legislative record typical of a congressional candidate. Neither has had day-to-day contact with pressing national issues or the political power to influence them.
So, besides looking at their resumes, voters have little choice but to take the candidates at their word as to what agenda they would pursue if elected .
Heller, a native Nevadan, has the more traditional background. He studied finance at the University of Southern California and worked on the Pacific Stock Exchange before returning home and taking a job in the state treasurer's office. Elected to the Nevada Assembly in 1990, Heller served two terms in the Legislature, during which time he sponsored legislation to protect Nevada's Public Employees Retirement System.
At 34, Heller was elected secretary of state, becoming the youngest person to hold the post in Nevada. He was re-elected in 1998 and 2002, and says in that time he has transformed a "quiet little office" into a high-profile job, often going against his own party's leadership.
"I don't think I'm your run-of-the-mill elected official who tows the party line day in and day out," Heller said. "That's not to say I'm not proud to be a Republican. But I do what it takes to get the job done."
Over the years, Heller has fought, with varying degrees of success, for tougher campaign-finance laws, including requiring candidates to disclose all donations of $100 or more, as opposed to the previous threshold of $500. As a result, 90 percent of political money gets reported now, a vast improvement over the 60 percent before, Heller said.
He also points to his reform of the state's voting system. In 2004, Nevada was the first state to use electronic voting machines with a paper trail, and in doing so became an important case study in election reform.
In this campaign, the toughest of his career, Heller is trying to strike a balance between party maverick and GOP loyalist.
On one hand, he lashes out at the Republican-controlled Congress, castigating lawmakers for their polarizing rhetoric. "The public sees nothing more than a partisan dogfight more than 95 percent of the time," he said.
Nevertheless, he supports Bush's policy on the war in Iraq, as well as his plan to privatize Social Security. Heller says he would pay for the latter with a line-item veto for the president and a balanced budget amendment. He also supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent.
On immigration, Heller is to the right of the president, saying he would have voted for a House bill passed last year that would make all illegal immigrants and those who assist them felons. "I believe that protecting our borders is as much a national security issue as Iraq is today," he said. If and when the border is secure, Heller would welcome a guest-worker program, but no path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
It all comes down to experience, Heller said. "It takes leadership, understanding the big picture, seeing which road to go down and getting it done," he said.
For her part, Derby must convince voters that Heller's political pedigree is a liability.
"A vote for my opponent is a vote for politics as usual," she said.
Riffing off her core campaign theme, Derby said her lack of political experience makes her a perfect fit with the 2nd District. "The message I hear everywhere is that people are concerned that we're headed in the wrong direction," she said.
Derby hopes her rural credentials will resonate with the district's voters. Her great-grandfather purchased land in Pershing County, she said, and her grandfather worked in the mines in Virginia City.
She was raised on a cattle ranch in Northern Nevada, spending summers at Lake Tahoe, before her family moved to California, where her father trained fighter pilots during World War II.
Later, she studied dental hygiene at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduation, she moved to Saudi Arabia to work as a health educator for the Arabian American Oil Co. Inspired by her years abroad, Derby returned to Nevada in the late 1960s to pursue a bachelor's - and eventually a doctorate - in anthropology at UNLV. She went on to teach the subject at Western Nevada Community College and Sierra Nevada College.
Elected to the nonpartisan Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents in 1988, Derby has served three terms as chairwoman and three as vice chairwoman, overseeing the fastest-growing higher education system in the country.
During her 18-year tenure, she said, she has worked to make education more accessible to Nevadans through rural outreach and online courses, and has been committed to increasing diversity on state campuses. Derby also points to the board's ambitious plans to double the number of nurses graduating from state colleges by 2013.
Like fellow Nevada Democrat, Rep. Shelley Berkley, Derby is looking to convert her education experience into political capital. Berkley served as vice chairwoman of the regents before her election in 1998. "It's trained me to be a problem-solver who can work across the political landscape," Derby said.
While drawing contrasts to Heller on national issues, such as the Iraq war (she opposes staying the course and favors setting clear benchmarks for success) and immigration (she favors both a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship, conditional on paying fines and learning English), Derby is building a platform around her fiscal conservatism, with a focus on pocketbook issues.
Derby said she would curtail tax subsidies for oil and pharmaceutical companies, push for larger tax credits for working parents to help pay for childcare, restore cuts to federal student aid programs, fight to increase the minimum wage, and reform the estate tax.
She opposes Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. "For people in their everyday lives, it's about their budgets," she said. "People in the middle are feeling really squeezed."
Ultimately, Derby goes back to her rural roots and her independence. "Party is not the first thing for me," she said. "It's about really big issues that we're facing as a country."
Her chances on Nov. 7, though, are likely to hinge on how many Republicans excuse the "D" next to her name, look past the "R" on their own voter registration - or stay home.
As of July, Greenspun family members had contributed $6,000 to Derby's campaign. The Greenspun family owns the Las Vegas Sun.