Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 | 2 a.m.
After winning a long and brutal U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Shelley Berkley, Republican Dean Heller’s first order of business was to thank the voters of Nevada “for having enough confidence to take me back.”
But most Nevadans didn’t vote for him.
In defeating Berkley, Heller secured barely 46 percent of the statewide vote, which means that over the next six years, he has to worry about how to build his standing not just in the Senate but also with the Nevada electorate.
“I certainly don’t see a mandate coming out of the race,” said Bob List, a former governor who helped the Republican National Committee-sponsored Team Nevada this year.
He likened Heller’s razor-thin win to President Barack Obama’s close re-election.
“Sadly, in effect, these are votes for the status quo,” List said.
But not every Republican is convinced a politician actually needs a mandate from the voters to serve in public office.
“Mandates tend to be overstated,” said Robert Uithoven, a Republican strategist. “Dean Heller won.”
Heller turned to the example of a famous Democrat when asked whether he had secured the confidence of enough voters to serve the whole state.
“We had a president, President Clinton, who had less than 50 percent of the vote every time he was elected president,” Heller said. “And he’s well received today.”
“Achieving over 50 percent, or the concept of a mandate, probably matters less now than it has in previous years because I don’t think there’s anybody going back to Washington with a mandate,” said Republican strategist Pete Ernaut of lobbying firm R&R Partners. “If there was any strong message sent in this election cycle, it was that Nevadans, and Americans by and large, want to see these two parties work together ... actually trying to solve problems.”
Ernaut isn’t alone in drawing that conclusion; it’s the same that was echoed by Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Harry Reid in the hours after the election was settled. But numbers from the Nevada Senate race don’t exactly bear that out. Instead, they display how deeply divided most voters are when it comes to politics — and how many more are becoming disenchanted with either the candidates or the campaign process.
Statewide, the split between Heller and Berkley was only 12,127 votes. At the same time, almost 45,000 Nevada voters decided to avail themselves of the “None of These Candidates” ballot option. Compare that to the U.S. Senate race two years ago, which pitted a deeply unpopular Sen. Harry Reid against an equally unpopular Sharron Angle. In that race, 16,000 voters checked "none of the above" — only a third of the number choosing it in the Berkley-Heller race.
“That’s a product of the campaigns. A lot of the leads on the stories of our Senate campaign here were that it was the dirtiest, the nastiest, the ugliest campaign Nevada’s ever seen,” Uithoven said. “Ultimately, campaigns will have to adjust to that.”
But the fact that more than half of Nevada’s voters apparently emerged from the campaign disappointed or simply fed up makes it harder for Heller to sell himself as the statewide candidate.
“Those who won the election and survived that negativity are going to have to do a lot of rehabilitating their reputations to get past the perceptions — and some of them are quite false — that those campaign ads created,” List said. “But a conscientious public servant is going to look for ways to find compromise and to work together.”
Heller’s supporters say he’ll easily display his strength in several areas. Ernaut listed budget issues, transparency in government and public lands as areas in which he expects Heller to make a splash. And he dismissed the notion that Heller would struggle to move past the acrimony of the campaign.
“I don’t think you can win an election by simply pointing out that the other person is a worse choice. ... You have to give them a place to land,” Ernaut said. “The fact that Dean won this race in the face of a registration deficit of over 90,000 speaks for itself: Clearly he has a voting record and a resume that appeals to a broad spectrum of voters.”
But his critics say that because of the tone of the campaign, many voters don’t even know Heller, much less support his policies.
“Even if the voter turnout numbers were better, there were more people who were going to vote against somebody than for somebody. ... Look at the negative ratings of both Heller and Berkley,” Vassiliadis said.
Heller received and dished out the negative talking points that steered the Heller-Berkley campaign far off the course of the actual issues he will have to deal with once back in Washington, D.C. Right now, though, he won’t answer questions about that process, saying simply: “Campaign’s over.”
Because of the nature of the campaign, however, Vassiliadis insisted that Heller’s chief challenge will be spending enough time in Clark County to make sure he understands and addresses the concerns of the voters who didn’t vote for him — and then takes their concerns as his own to Congress.
“This is a very centrist state: You can’t be too far left or too far right for too long a period of time,” Vassiliadis said. “Hopefully, Dean Heller will say, 'Maybe we’ve got to reach back to the center of the country again.'”
But even Republicans who believe the message to Heller — and Obama, and every victor in this election — was “work together” pause at the suggestion that the election outcome will cause Heller to change anything about the way he votes.
Heller’s record on centrism and compromise are mixed.
He built a strong reputation during his years as Nevada secretary of state. But once elected to Congress in 2006, he began taking pains to promote his conservative credentials, especially when it came to financial matters. In his time as a senator, he has worked to build consensus around items like the payroll tax cut but has refused to support other comprehensive deals, such as federal budgets and a bill to avoid hitting the debt ceiling.
In the months ahead, Heller will have to choose whether to compromise on even bigger measures, including an attempt to avoid the fiscal cliff and a fresh deadline on raising the debt ceiling.
“I don’t think that mandate applies to voting your conscience. I think Dean Heller has a long history ... of voting for compromise when it makes sense,” Ernaut said. “If it’s the right compromise, then I have no doubt that he will be willing to be part of it.”
Instead, Republican strategists believe the real work Heller will have to do to expand his support in the state is strategic.
“Senators have the luxury of a full six-year term, so there’s no immediate pressure. You can get in there and you have a little bit of time before you start overanalyzing every vote,” Uithoven said. “But (the election results) make you wonder: If the ethics charge were against him, what would the outcome of the campaign have been?
“I think (Heller) treats this as a moment the same way Harry Reid treated the '98 election as a moment, and that is knowing we have to do better. If I want to avoid the same kind of a race six years from now as I just finished ... I have to do what Harry Reid did after his '98 narrow victory and start putting in place the infrastructure to avoid such a close race next time.”