Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016 | 2 a.m.
A marionette who dances upon stacks of hundred-dollar bills or a man whose pastime is burying assorted objects — a rucksack, old campaign signs and a telephone — in the middle of the desert.
That’s the choice voters in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District have this November, if the television attack ads are to be believed. Kitschy as they may be, the ads hint at the biggest hurdles that Democrat Jacky Rosen and Republican Danny Tarkanian must overcome as they make their final pitches to voters, with early voting well underway and Election Day less than two weeks away.
Making his fifth bid for public office, businessman and philanthropist Tarkanian is hoping that 2016 will be different. Often dismissed as a perennial candidate, Tarkanian says he’s a better candidate now and believes he can tap into the frustration that many voters feel with the status quo in Washington D.C. Plus, he continues to have a name-recognition advantage as the son of late UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Tarkanian endured a brutal primary fight against state Sen. Michael Roberson, whose legislative record proved both a strength and weakness. Despite Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s popular Republican governor, throwing his weight behind Roberson and $1.6 million in last-minute spending against Tarkanian from an outside group, Tarkanian won the primary by 8 points.
But, as in elections past, Tarkanian is having to spend time pushing back on accusations over past business dealings, which Rosen and Democratic groups spending to support her have devoted most of their effort drawing attention to. They’ve also hit Tarkanian over his ongoing support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, though two other Republican congressional candidates in Nevada unendorsed Trump earlier this month.
Both Roberson and Tarkanian announced their congressional bids in July 2015. By comparison, Rosen was a relative latecomer to the race, not throwing her hat in the ring until January.
Democrats struggled to find someone to run for the seat throughout 2015: former Secretary of State Ross Miller, state Sen. Aaron Ford and Heather Murren, co-founder of the Nevada Cancer Institute and wife of MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren, all declined. Meanwhile, a host of strong candidates — state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, former state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, philanthropist Susie Lee and former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera — flocked to the Democratic primary in the 4th Congressional District.
So, when Rosen entered the race, it was with little opposition. The former computer programmer and Henderson synagogue leader faced a minor threat from Henderson lawyer Jesse Sbaih in the primary, whom she defeated by almost 50 points.
All of that has meant Rosen has been able to run a relatively quiet campaign, in the primary and in the general. With no political record and no prior runs for office from Rosen, Republicans have focused their attacks on her ties to Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who encouraged Rosen to run for the office.
The question now is who will eke out the win — and a large part of who does may depend on down-ballot reverberations from the presidential race.
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Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District stretches across the entire tip of Southern Nevada — from suburban Summerlin and Henderson to rural Searchlight. In the six elections since the district was created in 2003, it has been won by a Democrat only once: Congresswoman Dina Titus, who currently represents Nevada’s 1st District, held the 3rd District seat from 2009 to 2011.
Congressman Joe Heck, the incumbent, narrowly ousted Titus from the seat by 1,922 votes and has since been re-elected twice. But with Heck now vacating the seat to make a play for Nevada’s open U.S. Senate seat, the 3rd District is wide open.
Polls from both sides of the aisle have shown each candidate ahead. A recent poll taken by the Tarrance Group for the National Republican Congressional Committee shows Tarkanian ahead of Rosen by 5 points, though within the margin of error. On the other side, Rosen’s poll by Global Strategy Group shows her ahead by 7 points, outside of the 5-point margin of error.
Republican groups have repeatedly tied Rosen to Democrats in Washington, especially Reid, whose unfavorable ratings typically have hovered in the mid-40s nationwide.
But both polls reveal a potentially bigger problem for Rosen: Many voters are still unfamiliar with her. The NRCC poll taken showed that only 39 percent of voters had seen, read or heard something about her campaign, while Rosen’s poll showed that 41 percent of voters are familiar with her — up from 24 percent in July.
It’s a point that Tarkanian has been driving home. At a meeting of the Boulder City Republican Women at Railroad Pass Casino last week, Tarkanian asked how many in the crowd didn’t know his opponent’s name. About a dozen in the room of 50 or so raised their hands.
“I don’t know her name either,” Tarkanian joked. “I don’t mention it. I go places and they go, ‘Who are you running against,’ and I tell them, ‘I don’t know.’”
Tarkanian bemoaned the way that Rosen’s campaign and Democratic groups supporting her have focused their efforts less on building Rosen up and more on tearing him down. “They’re just going to focus all their attention to create an image of me, a character assassination of me that will — they hope — turn voters off enough so they’ll vote against me no matter who I’m running against,” Tarkanian told the group.
But talk to Reid, who has spent time in Nevada the past couple of weeks drumming up support for Rosen and other Democrats, and her lack of name recognition isn’t a problem at all.
“Democrats don’t need to know” who Rosen is, Reid said in an interview last week. “They know who Tarkanian is. They’re going to be fine.”
When asked to make a positive argument for herself in a recent interview, Rosen returned to her talking points. “The positive argument really is that he’s a Tea Party radical and I’m a common-sense candidate,” Rosen said. “I’ve worked, I’ve raised a family, I haven’t been a perennial candidate. I’ve lived a life I can be really proud of.”
Among her priorities, Rosen named raising wages, protecting Social Security and Medicare and ensuring women have access to health care. Rosen said she would accomplish those goals as a freshman congresswoman, “by bringing the voices of our community forward, making sure that I’m listening to the Democrats and Republicans, hearing what they have to say, and trying to find that common ground.”
Rosen wouldn’t say whether she agrees with Reid that Democrats don’t need to know her, instead pivoting to Tarkanian’s high unfavorable ratings. (The Global Strategy Group poll showed Tarkanian with 48 percent unfavorability.)
Plus, the two things Reid says are working against Tarkanian? That he “has been proven to be a loser” and won’t “suddenly become a winner.” Also, that “Republicans are going to be killed” down ballot “because of Donald Trump.”
That’s why Rosen’s campaign and backers like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC have collectively spent millions of dollars on negative ads against Tarkanian, rehashing old attacks from his past bids for public office. The ads have highlighted a $17 million judgment the FDIC obtained against Tarkanian and several of his family members, missed property tax payments, and accusations that Tarkanian was involved in telemarketing fraud.
They’re the same attacks Tarkanian faced not only in the primary but also in his prior bids for state Senate in 2004, for secretary of state in 2006, for U.S. Senate in 2010 and for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District in 2012.
At the recent meeting of Boulder City Republican Women, Tarkanian went out of his way to respond to the attacks, saying he wanted people to know the truth so they could address any concerns that their friends might have.
The $17 million judgement he explained as a “bad real estate investment” that left him and his family “stuck holding the bag.” He said the property tax fines were only a couple hundred dollars and that he was the minority owner on the properties on all but one occasion. The telemarketing fraud accusation he said frustrated him the most since he won a defamation suit over the attack during his 2004 state Senate race.
“The DCCC, the national party, they have unlimited money,” Tarkanian told the crowd, when they asked why he wouldn’t run ads to explain away the accusations. “I don’t have the bandwidth to fight that, and I don’t want to be on the defensive.”
On top of all of that, Tarkanian has a fine line to walk with Republicans both supporting Trump and not. A couple of weeks ago, Heck and Republican Congressman Cresent Hardy made a public show of withdrawing their support for Trump after his lewd comments about women made to an “Access Hollywood” host in 2005 came to light.
In an interview, Tarkanian said he couldn’t comment on why Heck and Hardy made the decisions they did. But he reiterated that he couldn’t do the same because the election is about more than “just personalities.” “Obviously Donald Trump has his problems that have been very well reported,” Tarkanian said. “But what we really want is who is the best person and vision and what they want to do leading our country. ... I think Hillary Clinton’s vision is the absolute wrong vision for our country.”
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At the end of the day, Rosen’s under-the-radar strategy may prove most effective, said UNLV political science professor David Damore.
“The most important thing you tell a candidate — ‘You don’t have to explain what you don’t say,’” Damore said.
At the same time, Damore said that if Rosen ends up winning, “she pulls it out because of Clinton.”
Rosen said that she’d like to think that she’s been running on the issues and that people are getting a chance to know her as a candidate. “But of course the presidential race and the top of the ticket always helps,” Rosen said. “I want to give something to vote for not something to vote against.”
The biggest unknown? Turnout.
“The biggest risk I have in this race is that there is a decrease in enthusiasm by Republican voters or voters that are going to vote for Republican Party candidates,” Tarkanian told the Republican women’s group. “If we don’t get them to the polls, we end up losing.”