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November 12, 2018

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Erin Bilbray’s once promising congressional campaign collapsed without clear strategy

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Steve Marcus

Congressional candidate Erin Bilbray gets a hug from her sister Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod after a concession speech during an election-night party for Democrats at MGM Grand on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Her husband Dr. Noah Kohn is at left. Bilbray was challenging Republican Congressman Joe Heck.

Even before first-time candidate Erin Bilbray announced her campaign for Congress in July 2013, Washington Democrats rolled out the red carpet for her.

The connected and telegenic Nevada Democrat captured the early momentum in her bid to unseat two-term incumbent Rep. Joe Heck from Southern Nevada's swing district representing Henderson and Summerlin.

In a national landscape filled with gerrymandered congressional districts, the race for the state's 3rd Congressional District was shaping up to be one of the nation's closest. Powerful party leaders lined up to back Bilbray, and Republicans, fearing a tight race, responded to defend Heck.

But Bilbray's campaign sputtered and ultimately collapsed on Nov. 4 when Heck won in a landslide with more than 60 percent of the vote.

In the post-election analysis, Democrats were left to figure out how a promising candidate with strong party support in a toss-up district lost so badly.

According to interviews with 10 people who worked on the race, Bilbray's campaign lacked a clear strategy. She got caught between party operatives in Washington telling her to sit in a room to make fundraising calls and her supporters in Nevada saying she should get outside to shake hands with voters.

Churning through three campaign managers in eight months, her campaign never gained traction with voters or even her own party leaders.

Bilbray's defeat underscores just how important money and Washington party support is to congressional campaigns. At an estimated $4 billion, this was the most expensive midterm in history, and campaigns are only getting more expensive since a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.

Bilbray and her supporters say she did all she could against a Republican incumbent in a year when Republicans swept the state. They say she ran a well-coordinated, organized and focused campaign."I think she's a perfect candidate in a horrible year," said Adriana Martinez, Bilbray's third and final campaign manager and her close friend.

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Republican Joe Heck and Democrat Erin Bilbray are bidding for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District seat in the 2014 November general election.

On paper, Bilbray looks like a perfect candidate.

She founded Emerge Nevada, a nonprofit that trains women to be more active in politics. She's a Nevada native. She has fundraising experience with her husband's now-part time nonprofit clinic that provides children free health care. She has name recognition from her father, James Bilbray, a four-term Nevada congressman.

These were the selling points she used to convince Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrats' leader, to give his blessing to her campaign. Next came support from key Washington organizations, such as pro-choice political action committee Emily's List and House Democrats' campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

That backing made her the presumptive Democratic nominee in the spring 2014 primary election.

But the harsh reality of running for national office soon hit.

Bilbray struggled with constant input from Washington. She was caught off guard by the type of work she'd have to put in, such as spending eight hours a day on the phone asking for money. She wanted to hold more public events to introduce herself to voters.

"There's this model of candidates going into a back room with no windows and just being on the phone hour after hour after hour asking for money," Bilbray said. "For somebody who is really more gregarious like myself, who gets my energy from being with other people, that was very draining."

Against the advice of omnipresent Washington advisers, Bilbray hired local people to run her campaign. In came Bradley Mayer, a Nevada political manager who had run local and state campaigns. In the small world of Nevada politics, he also worked on Heck's 2004 state Senate campaign.

Mayer left the campaign after just six months, saying federal races "weren't my cup of tea."

This time, Reid's team got the manager they wanted: Erica Prosser, a Washington Democratic operative with 15 years of campaign experience.

Things seemed to be back on track. In March, the House Democrats' campaign committee announced they'd give Bilbray their top-level staffing support and training.

But just two months later, the committee passed over Bilbray when it made a big buy of political ads on TV. The committee spent $43 million in 36 of the roughly 45 contested congressional districts. They ignored Bilbray's district.

The committee helped in other ways and said it could weigh in later. But Republicans questioned Democrats' strategy of not putting early support behind Bilbray.

"That was our biggest clue that Democrats knew they were in trouble with this race," said Emily Davis, a Republican operative with outside group Congressional Leadership Fund.

The air time never came, in part, because Bilbray struggled to raise money. In July, when federal campaign fundraising totals for the first quarter of 2014 became public, Heck's campaign had $1 million more than she did.

Bilbray points out that she raised $1.2 million in total , which she says is a large amount for someone who had never run for political office.

"I think that we are losing perspective on how much money that really is," she said. Heck's 2012 Democratic challenger, John Oceguera, raised $1.5 million, and he was the former speaker of the Nevada Assembly.

But politics is often a math game, and Bilbray's fundraising wasn't projecting strength.

Nonpartisan rating groups downgraded Bilbray's chances of winning. By the fall of 2014, outside groups on both sides of the aisle didn't bother putting up major money for or against Bilbray, a signal that supporters didn't think she had a chance and opponents didn't see her as a risk.

The stress of running a national, spotlight campaign started to get to Bilbray. She micromanaged the campaign. She got into long Twitter arguments with conservative Nevada Republicans about whether Heck's team could put yard signs in her neighbor's yard.

Of the Twitter fight, Bilbray said: "I felt it was very important to keep a sense of humor throughout the course of the campaign. I guess that wasn't maybe necessarily as important to people in Washington, D.C., but I thought it was for my own sanity."

In fact, there were 2,500 miles of misunderstanding between Democratic operatives calling the shots in Washington and Bilbray's campaign in Henderson. Bilbray says she wished she could have fielded their inquiries directly instead of leaving that to others involved in her campaign.

"That's one of the problems with being in the back room raising money for eight hours," she said. "You don't always have the opportunity to know what the plan is."

In August, tensions became so bad that three Washington staffers left the campaign, including campaign manager Prosser and Rhonda Foxx, Bilbray's finance director.

Less than a week later, Reid publicly criticized the campaign.

"Bilbray should win, but her campaign has been hit and miss," Reid said in an interview with the Sun. "It hasn't been a great campaign."

What was supposed to be one of the nation's most competitive congressional races fizzled.

On Election Day, Democrats failed for the third time to unseat Heck. Capitol Hill newspaper CQ Roll Call listed Bilbray as one of the nation's "top flameout" candidates.

Democrats still believe Nevada's 3rd is competitive. But they recognize that this campaign was just the wrong candidate at the wrong time.

Bilbray, though, says she wouldn't have changed the substance of her campaign.

"I ran a campaign where I was not afraid to talk about issues that are affecting Southern Nevadans," she said.

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Former Congressman James Bilbray joins with family members on stage as his daughter Erin, a congressional candidate, gives her concession speech during an election night party for Democrats at the MGM Grand Tuesday, November 4, 2014.

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