Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Democrat Jill Derby is betting on a little new math with her decision to challenge first-term Republican Rep. Dean Heller of Carson City.
Derby lost to Heller in 2006 by 5 percentage points in the heavily Republican district. Her hope this year lies in changing numbers, many of them linked to Nevada’s presidential caucuses last month.
The Republican margin in the mostly rural district has been reduced by one-fourth since Heller’s election in 2006, and although the ranks of active Republican voters remain constant year after year, Democrats in the district historically are more active in presidential election years.
And this year, Democrats — and independents and moderate Republicans — are especially restless.
So there may be no better time than now for Derby.
Exhibit 1: Democrats have cut into the Republican registration edge of two years ago by nearly 12,000 active voters — from 48,346 to 36,640, according to a post-caucus voter registration report released by the secretary of state’s office this week. That’s roughly the number of votes by which Derby fell short last time. Election officials are still awaiting the return of thousands of voter registration forms they distributed for the presidential caucuses.
“People felt the winds change,” said Derby, who’s been considering another run since her loss last time around. “It looks like a different year. The wind is at our back, and the organizing has really changed the landscape.”
Derby said she also expects the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which targeted the district in 2006 and boosted Derby’s campaign. In fact, Derby said the committee’s Western regional director spent the past few days with her in Northern Nevada. Derby will travel to Washington next week to participate in the group’s candidate forum.
Committee spokesman Doug Thornell said no decisions have been made about spending, but added that Heller’s is among the 40 to 50 Republican seats in the House targeted by the party this cycle.
Heller developed a reputation as a moderate Republican in his years as Nevada’s secretary of state. But he has tacked to the right since a tough three-way primary challenge in 2006 that he nearly lost to former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who was backed by the conservative Club for Growth.
In August the group named Heller one of 16 Republican congressmen with a perfect record of voting for “anti-pork” amendments.
Derby says the shift has rubbed the district’s “independent-minded” voters raw. The campaign message: “If you want change in Washington, you have to change the people you send there.”
A native Nevadan who grew up on a cattle ranch, Derby is reprising her Western-themed “Boot ’Em” slogan from 2006. The district covers 16 of Nevada’s 17 counties and a portion of Clark.
She said she plans to take Heller to task for his support of Bush administration policies, including the unpopular war in Iraq. Heller, she said, voted against an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, while supporting “tax giveaways to oil companies.”
“That isn’t looking out for Nevada and Nevada families,” Derby said. “Nevadans deserve better, and there’s a great hunger for change.”
Returning to work on the campaign will be Derby’s team of national consultants, including David Cohen, who served as her campaign manager in 2006 and worked most recently as state director for Sen. Barack Obama’s Nevada campaign. Cohen will be a senior adviser.
Derby’s role as state chairwoman of the Nevada Democratic Party, which she relinquished Wednesday, increased her visibility and enabled her to meet movers and shakers in the party — including big-time donors. She also retains a base of support from the past election. Both candidates raised and spent more than $1.5 million in 2006.
Some aren’t so sure about Derby’s chances.
“In all probability, her best shot at this seat came and went in 2006,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
Despite the strategic advantages gained from the caucus, Derby faces the inherent challenge of toppling an incumbent — and likely a unified Republican Party in November, he said. Crossover support will be hard to find, he added.
Still, Democrats point out that Heller raised just $104,800 in the past fundraising quarter, leaving him with about $664,000 cash on hand. He also has a campaign debt of $380,880.
Heller is ignoring Derby — for now.
“Congressman Heller has worked tirelessly over the past year for the people of Nevada and he will continue to focus on the work that needs to be done for his constituents over the course of this year, regardless of who enters the race,” said Stewart Bybee, Heller’s spokesman. “He will continue to work to strengthen our economy and our borders, and will fight against tax increases and amnesty for illegals in the months ahead.”