Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Democrats just don’t want to let go. The prospect of running a U.S. Senate campaign against a Republican marred by a sex scandal is just too tantalizing.
So tantalizing that it doesn’t matter that the Republican running for the seat is scandal free.
In a sign that Democrats aren’t above tarring U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., with his predecessor’s predilection for extramarital affairs, the state party introduced a new campaign mascot Monday designed to convince voters that Heller is “cheating” on them with big oil companies.
The mascot is a man dressed as an oil barrel with a top hat. But the innuendo is in the mascot’s name: “Slick, Dean Heller’s Ethically Questionable Special-Interest Friend with Benefits.”
Rather than leaving it at an implication, Nevada Democrats are overt in their effort to link Heller to former U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s scandal.
“We absolutely feel it’s fair,” Democratic spokesman Zach Hudson said. “Like we said, considering who he replaced in the Senate it isn’t surprising he would cheat on Nevadans with big oil companies.”
Oil companies bringing in substantial profits as the recession drags on are easy to paint as villains, particularly as public opinion mounts for eliminating their tax breaks to help solve the debt crisis.
The nexus between Heller and the oil industry is much better defined.
He repeatedly has voted against efforts to end oil company tax credits, has supported easing drilling restrictions and backed other policies favorable to the industry. In return, the industry has supported Heller, contributing heavily to his campaigns for the House and now Senate.
“Certainly big oil is an easy target, and in a way, Republicans are vulnerable on this because they just absolutely refuse to consider closing tax loopholes,” said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at UNR. “And it’s not like big oil companies are just on the verge of barely making it.”
Heller isn’t necessarily averse to closing tax loopholes, he just doesn’t want to see one industry targeted.
“The last thing this country needs right now is a tax increase that will slow growth even further and increase the price of gas,” Heller’s spokesman Stewart Bybee said. “If they would actually like to discuss removing loopholes and simplifying the tax code across the board, that is something Sen. Heller has been championing for years.”
Democrats aren’t content to simply frame Heller’s pro-oil policies as a pay-to-play scheme. They’ve added a layer of rhetoric to their attack, using the metaphor of an unfaithful spouse.
“He is two-timing Nevadans,” Hudson said.
Herzik said the effort pushes the line of political decency in a campaign, but noted that while it’s a sign Democrats are ready to sling mud, it isn’t exactly out of the norm.
“Is it unacceptable? Ten years ago, yes,” Herzik said. “Now? No.”
Heller’s campaign didn’t take the charge lying down.
“The dress-up mascot is silly and juvenile,” Heller’s political adviser Mike Slanker said in a written statement. “Shelley Berkley has been casting votes and introducing legislation for her own family interests — putting money in her pocket — and their response is an attack mascot? Will the mascot be taking the interviews from the press that Berkley is dodging?”
Indeed, the Democrats’ campaign has a twofold purpose in the wake of news that Berkley, Heller’s Democratic opponent, has long championed public health care policy that would financially benefit her husband’s kidney-care medical practice — including working to save the UMC transplant center, which is contracted with Dr. Larry Lehrner’s practice.
Since then, Berkley has worked to put her own conflict in a more sympathetic light and to deflect the question of ethics back on Heller.
Last week, the Berkley campaign persuaded a kidney transplant patient from the center to defend Berkley to reporters.
This week, the party is hammering Heller for his oil company support.
“She’s fighting for sick patients; Dean Heller is fighting for the oil companies,” Hudson said.