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August 15, 2018

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Las Vegas philanthropist might try to unseat Rep. Joe Heck

Susie Lee

Susie Lee

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U.S. Congressman Joe Heck (R-NV) responds to a question during an editorial board meeting at the Las Vegas Sun offices Monday, Aug. 11, 2014.

WASHINGTON — At the urging of national Democrats, Las Vegas philanthropist Susie Lee is seriously considering challenging Rep. Joe Heck in one of Congress’ last true swing districts.

Democrats believe Lee could be their best shot to unseat Heck next year from Nevada's 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses Las Vegas’ wealthier suburbs and rural Southern Nevada.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is actively recruiting Lee to run.

“I have received calls from many different people in Nevada encouraging me to run for public office,” Lee said today in a statement. “I love the nonprofit community work that I do, but I am strongly considering whether I can contribute even more by running for office. I am discussing options with my family.”

Lee is well connected among the Las Vegas elite.

She is president of the board of one of Clark County’s most influential and well-heeled nonprofits, Communities in Schools Nevada. The state branch is funded by Lee’s friend, philanthropist and State Board of Education President Elaine Wynn.

Lee’s husband, Daniel Lee, was briefly CEO of the Palms and before that ran Pinnacle Entertainment. He is now in charge of Las Vegas-based regional gaming company Full House Resorts.

Susie Lee’s personal wealth, her nonprofit fundraising skills and her noncontroversial background in helping at-risk students make her an attractive choice for Democrats in an election year that could favor their party. A wide-open presidential race and open U.S. Senate seat is likely to draw national Democrats’ attention to Nevada, helping elevate down-ballot races like Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District.

On paper, the district is competitive.

The 3rd District is almost evenly split among Democrat and Republican voters. President Barack Obama carried the district in both his elections.

It is relatively diverse, with about 35 percent of the voting-age population identifying as a minority, mostly Latino or Asian American.

But Heck has managed to win the district three times against thee different Democratic opponents. He appears to be ramping up for a fight again.

He has more than $900,000 in his campaign account, even though he is also looking at a run for U.S. Senate, which would change the race’s dynamics.

Democrats are hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2014 midterm elections.

Last time around, Democrats nominated relative political newcomer Erin Bilbray to challenge Heck. Bilbray also had nonprofit fundraising experience, but she struggled with the transition to the type of fundraising required to support a competitive House race.

Buoyed by a national Republican wave, Heck won the race with 60 percent of the vote.

Democrats are at risk of repeating the same mistake, said David Damore, a UNLV political science professor.

In general, self-funding candidates have a terrible track record in winning elections. Lee also doesn’t have much name recognition beyond education professionals and her wealthy gaming friends, he said.

“She’s not going to be well known among voters, so she’s going to have to spend a lot of time and money just to get her name out there,” Damore said.

Local Democrats are also urging Lee to consider running for state Senate in District 6, which covers Summerlin. The seat used to belong to Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison.

In the tangled world that is Nevada politics, Lee briefly considered in 2013 joining the race for lieutenant governor.

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