Las Vegas Sun

August 22, 2019

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Jon Ralston:

It’s boilerplate vs. ethics in federal races

For months now, Democrats have been bludgeoning Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Joe Heck with familiar and tiresome rhetoric to frighten old people into voting for their opponents.

Cutting Medicare. Cutting Social Security. Cutting their oxygen, too, I suppose.

The Republicans apparently also adore millionaires and despise the middle class. Who knew?

This is all too obvious and, Democrats know from history, all too effective. So they will not shut up for the next 334 days. This is nothing new.

But here’s what is different in Campaign ’12: In those two nationally watched races, for John Ensign’s Senate seat and Heck’s congressional seat, the battle will be between Democratic talking points and Republican ethics assaults. I believe this pattern also will hold true in the new congressional district, which national Republicans will have only a mild interest in unless state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford falters.

Yes, other factors will be crucial — the president’s relative unpopularity, the Democratic ground game, the GOP party of chaos.

But it seems clear to me as Democrats pound away at GOP proposals to cut spending, framing them as a binary choice between protecting and preserving (get used to that construction) Medicare and Social Security or gutting the entitlements, Republicans will combat these attacks by raising the ethics of their opponents. It’s not just all they have, but each of those federal races provides ample ammunition for them to load their weapons.

Before I go on, I must note the irony of the party whose most recent not-so-voluntary departures were two of the most scandalized elected officials this state has seen — John Ensign and Jim Gibbons — using the ethics sword to slice up Democrats.

• U.S. Senate: Rep. Shelley Berkley, in yet another release like so many we have already seen, pummeled Heller on Tuesday for his “reckless support for Wall Street over Nevada’s middle class …” I’ll spare you the rest.

Berkley and the campaign nonpareils lent to her by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid know what works: Repetition of familiar themes, so enough voters are swayed a year from now that Heller loves rich folks and hates old folks.

Team Heller realizes this stuff cuts, so beyond the occasional “Obamacare” and tax-and-spend boiler plate of its own, its counterpunching will involve a trifecta of putative scandals: Berkley’s 1990s advice to her then-boss Sheldon Adelson to give campaign contributions to judges to influence their decisions and slip county commissioners financial help in their nonelected lives, her advocacy in Congress for causes that helped her doctor-husband’s business (as reported by The New York Times) and her doctor-husband’s flipping of foreclosed homes while she crusades for oppressed homeowners.

Forget the relative merits of each of these stories. I will address those when Heller fires his guns. But Heller clearly intends to try to make Berkley, who has not faced real scrutiny since her first campaign in 1998, look unethical.

• CD3: Heck’s unfortunate description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” will haunt him like a Sharron Angle video clip come next year. And like Heller, he will have to defend votes Democrats will characterize as a senior citizen apocalypse.

The congressman’s opponent, Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, will have to deal with his legislative record, which Republicans surely will point out involved a less than Norquist-sanctioned level of spending. But even more so, Oceguera will have to deal with the issue of being a public employee (he just retired as a fireman) and taking pay while in Carson City. The so-called double-dipping issue could be potent and will be used as an ethics issue by Heck, I am quite certain. I can write the ad in my head (no, Congressman, I won’t help).

• CD4: This is a heavily Democratic district and state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford is favored. But the GOP has been eyeing the seat for a couple of reasons.

First, it has a significant rural component, which may turn out in higher numbers and is where a Republican could run well. Second, Horsford will not just have to deal with being the frontman for a billion-dollar tax plan, he will also have to defend ethics questions about pay-to-play meals he proposed and then canceled and a PokerStars-financed trip to Nassau. Those ads by either state Sen. Barbara Cegavske or Danny Tarkanian will be ugly and will portray Horsford as DeLay-like.

What’s immutably true about these kinds of ethical issues that look good on paper is that they are only as powerful as the execution. That will be fascinating to watch as the GOP contenders in those three races try to peel away independents and soft partisans by using character issues over pocketbook worries.

Lose your Medicare and Social Security or elect a crook. Ah, choices.

I wonder who wins that one.

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