Sunday, July 24, 2011 | 2 a.m.
In Today's Sun
As they look toward the 2012 election, Nevadans don’t yet know who half the candidates for national offices will be or what districts they will run in or, for many voters, which districts they’ll cast ballots in.
But one thing is certain: However things turn out on Election Day, Nevada’s clout in Washington will take a serious hit. After a decade of representation by senior statesmen and women, Nevada’s delegation will feature a majority of novices. At least four of the state’s six seats will be occupied by freshmen.
Representation by a novice delegation will have serious implications in a city where seniority pays dividends. Washington may be a dirty word on the campaign trail, but Nevada lawmakers’ longevity in the capital has yielded benefits, both financial and political, back home. Nevada receives one of the highest rates of federal dollars per capita. And as a bloc, the delegation has successfully blocked significant action on the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain for several years.
Ensign’s fall cost Nevada not only a decade’s worth of accrued influence in the Republican caucus, but almost all its cache in the House, where Rep. Shelley Berkley and former Rep. and now Sen. Dean Heller used to sit on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Come 2013, neither will be in the House: Republican Heller was chosen to fill Ensign’s seat, becoming the newest senator — so new he has yet to give his first speech on the Senate floor. Democrat Berkley has decided to leave the House to run for that Senate seat, likely meaning Heller or Berkley will be elected to the Senate, with the loser exiting Congress.
That would make Republican Rep. Joe Heck — assuming he hangs onto the 3rd Congressional District seat he won last year by a slim margin — as the dean of the House delegation. He has only six months’ experience in Washington.
There could, however, be a silver lining to this cloud.
Nevada used to be among the most united delegations, but the partisan acrimony that’s come to define Washington has left its mark on the contingent. Tension surrounding Ensign’s affair has magnified those tensions.
A mostly or all-new roster of lawmakers in the House could give the delegation a fresh start.
Berkley, the state’s senior House member who will have logged 14 years by the end of this term, doesn’t think a blank slate would be such a bad thing.
“Judging from who is tossing their hats in the ring, this is a strong and experienced field,” Berkley said, rattling off only the presumed Democratic candidates. “John Oceguera has a wealth of experience in the Nevada Legislature ... Steven Horsford has been the majority leader of the Nevada Senate ... and if Dina Titus gets re-elected — and I have every belief that she will — she knows this process from her service as a U.S. congresswoman.”
“You don’t have to be a senior member of the majority to do your job and be heard,” Berkley said. “Freshmen on the Republican side are demonstrating that fact — in a negative way.”
But members on both sides of the aisle are counting on Nevada’s political heavyweight: Harry Reid.
“We will still have the Senate majority leader,” Heck said, “and whoever the other senator is, (he or she will be) an experienced legislator from the House.”
That assumes either Berkley or Heller wins the seat, an assumption well-funded Democratic candidate Byron Georgiou would certainly dispute.
Indeed, assuming either Berkley or Heller wins the Senate seat, they would lose seniority but not the relationships they’ve built over their years in Washington.
But that’s no substitute for seniority, especially when it comes to securing dollars. Earmarks may be off the books in this Congress (and Heller has vowed not to pursue them), but clout can help write Nevada’s priorities into law, whether that’s as an add-on (should earmarks return in the next Congress) or as part of the appropriations process.
Of course, seniority counts for even more when it belongs to a representative in the majority. And there is no guarantee Nevada’s remaining repository of seniority, Reid, will continue as leader of a majority.
Six Democratic (or Democrat-leaning Independent) senators will retire at the end of 2012. Another 17 are seeking re-election. That’s a large share of the caucus that Reid must keep in his column, starting with a slim three-seat advantage. Republicans, meanwhile, have two senators retiring, and just eight up for re-election.
If Reid can’t keep the majority, he’ll still be one of the most influential senators in Congress. But Nevada and its interests will take a hit, experts say.
A number of issues would be affected, said Eric Herzik, a political-science professor at UNR.
“When it comes to gaming issues, Harry Reid controls the agenda of the Senate,” Herzik said. “Alternative energy — Republicans don’t want to investigate that. Nevada, which has no oil or gas, is no longer a player at any energy table.”
It might be a situation Nevada ought to get used to more because of the state’s divided voters than its size, experts said.
“We’re kind of unique in that we’re a small state and a swing state: In 10 years, you’ve had three different people in that CD3 seat,” said David Damore, a political-science professor at UNLV. “It’s tough: You’re always fighting an uphill battle when you’re a small state in the House, and when you have a volatile electorate, it’s really tough.”
Herzik added, “If John Ensign had not made his personal mistake, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about political clout. So kind of an odd set of factors is taking us from a position of exaggerated political power to being back to what a state like Nevada ought to expect. But I don’t know if any state has ever had such a sudden lack of seniority.”
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected. An earlier version said Sen. Dean Heller had not yet seen his first day day on the Senate floor. | (July 24, 2011)