Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei arguably have two of the biggest targets on their backs of any Republican members in Congress.
Political observers and party operatives alike say Democrats are well organized, much more engaged and have the ability, in part because of the remaining influence of retired Sen. Harry Reid, who Truckee Meadows Community College political science Chair Fred Lokken said can “still draw national money.”
All say the challenge in both races is finding a viable opponent.
Lokken said that’s “the Achilles heel in the state Democratic Party.”
“Everything just gets down to the ability of Democrats to identify candidates and identify them early,” he said.
University of Nevada, Reno political science Chairman Erik Herzik said simply, “You have to have somebody to beat somebody.”
“The Democrats have an ideal opportunity against Heller but they don’t have an ideal candidate,” he said.
Longtime Democrat and former AFL-CIO President Danny Thompson made a nearly identical comment.
“With the backlash against President Trump, I think the Democrats are more riled up than I’ve ever seen them, but you can’t beat someone with no one,” he said.
Thompson was joined by Harry Schiffman, head of the Nevada American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in pointing out unions are once again fully on board with Democrats after a few years of less than enthusiastic support.
“Unions in the recent past, some felt the Democrats were just playing us in a sense,” Schiffman said. “Now we’re working more together.”
That support is vital to the party since the huge union membership in the south provides Democrats with the army of backers walking the districts and turning out voters.
Nevada Democratic Party Communications Director Stewart Boss said Heller is the No. 1 Republican target in the country.
“The energy and enthusiasm is there,” he said. “His numbers in the polls are weak. He’s ripe for a challenge.”
Boss said in part because of Heller’s continuing opposition to the GOP health care bill, he’s being “eviscerated” on talk radio as going soft on repeal. That position, however, serves to “moderate his record a little bit,” in heavily Democratic Clark County.
“He’s caught between a rock and a hard place,” Boss said.
He said Heller has a record dating back to 2007 of seeking to defund Planned Parenthood, but Heller told attendees at the Reno town hall he supports federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Heller’s vulnerable and he knows it,” said Herzik.
The primary names being mentioned as potential opponents for Heller are Rep. Dina Titus and former State Treasurer Kate Marshall. More than one observer pointed out, however, Titus is in a safe district and challenging Heller would be a huge political risk.
Amodei, both pundits said, is a different case.
“Democrats have never won that district,” said Herzik adding the closest they came was in 2008 when Jill Derby came within 5 percent of beating Heller.
“I think it’s wishful thinking by Democrats that Amodei is vulnerable,” Herzik said. “I say we’re a purple state, but CD2 is a red district.”
Amodei is, however, facing yet another primary challenge by Sharron Angle from the far right that could draw off some support.
Among those mentioned as possible Amodei opponents is former Washoe Sheriff Mike Haley and former Reno councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza. But Herzik said even if they were to do well in Washoe County, “they’ll get annihilated in the rural counties.”
Boss agreed Amodei “is not going to be that easy a fight by any means.” But he made clear it’s a fight they intend to make.
Lokken was a bit more optimistic, pointing out Chip Evans did better than expected in his 2016 loss to Amodei. He said with fully 20 percent of Washoe voters non-partisan, “in the north, a door is opening.” Lokken said taking him out, especially as an incumbent, is still a big hill to climb.
Another factor is Amodei’s recurring statements about being tired of Washington, D.C., hinting he may not run.
“It’s an easier road if it’s an open seat,” said Boss.
“Even if it’s not Amodei, it would be difficult,” said Carson Democratic Chair and state party vice chair Marty McGarry. “I’d love to say it’s in play but the voter registration numbers don’t back that up.”
In significant part for personal reasons, Priscilla Maloney of the AFSCME retirees said Amodei has to be a target because he flipped and voted to pass the GOP health care act this past week. She said speaking as an individual and breast cancer survivor, “He broke his promise and backed a bill that’s going to hurt Nevadans.”
“He promised specifically he would not pass any legislation that would hurt Nevadans,” she said, adding she believes that can be explained to the district’s Republican loyalists.
Shiffman said everything depends on all factions that make up the Democratic Party working together.
“We need to move together, work together to get the engine moving,” he said.