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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Nevada Senate Race A Tossup

Democrats target Kansas' 3rd district

By Stuart Rothenberg

The decision by businessman Bruce James to drop out of the race for Nevada's Republican Senate nomination has breathed new life into Cong. John Ensign's challenge to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV).

 1998 Gubernatorial Ratings

Ensign, a two-term Republican who represents Las Vegas, took his time in deciding whether to challenge Reid, the two-term Senate Democrat who served as lieutenant governor and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The congressman's indecision encouraged James's candidacy and made some GOP insiders nervous about the Senate race. But Ensign officially jumped into the Senate race in mid-November, and he became the certain GOP nominee when James fired his consultants and recently ended his sputtering quest for the nomination.

With strong ties to the state's all-important gaming industry, Ensign knocked off an incumbent Democratic congressman in 1994, and he has been a reliably loyal member of the Republican Revolution ever since. In 1996, he narrowly defeated a Democratic state legislator (50-44 percent), who benefited from a major effort by the AFL-CIO to defeat Ensign. The congressman, a member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, spent $1.9 million to defend his seat.

Ensign's decision to run for the Senate was made easier by Democrat Shelley Berkley's bid for Ensign's House seat. Berkley, who has served in the state Assembly and on the state board of regents, is a former vice president at the Sands Hotel. Like Ensign, she has close ties to the gaming industry and would have been a very tough opponent for the congressman.

New polling (conducted for the National Republican Senatorial Committee) shows Reid holding a narrow 49-41 percent lead over Ensign, and the state's demographics suggest that the senator will have problems in November. Reid won only 51 percent of the vote six years ago and 50 percent of the vote in 1986, so he has never shown overwhelming strength.

Ensign currently represents the more Democratic 1st District, and if he can hold his own in the part of the state that he represents, he should be able to count on a strong vote from the rest of the state, which is more conservative and Republican. While Bill Clinton carried the 1st C.D. in 1992 and 1996, Republican George Bush won the 2nd C.D. in 1992, and GOP nominee Bob Dole carried the 2nd District four years later. And to make things worse for Reid, the 2nd traditionally casts between 50,000 and 100,000 more votes than does the 1st District. That is reason enough to regard this race as a tossup.

Dems Target Kansas' 3rd District

KANSAS 3 Democratic operatives know that to take over the House of Representatives they'll probably need to knock off close to a dozen GOP incumbents, and they've set their sights on Kansas 3rd District freshman Vince Snowbarger as one of those targets.

Snowbarger, who served in the Kansas House and as that body's majority leader, won a hard-fought 50-45 percent victory in 1996 over Judy Hancock, who was making her second bid for the seat and portrayed herself as a political moderate. Hancock even outspent Snowbarger $840,000-$465,000, and she undoubtedly received the votes of some moderate Republicans who were uncomfortable with the Republican's conservatism on moral issues. (Snowbarger won a divisive GOP primary against a moderate who was endorsed by the outgoing congresswoman, Jan Meyers, and by retiring senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum.)

Democrats now say that Snowbarger won only because of Dole's presence on the national ticket, and they insist that their nominee for this November, former Johnson County district attorney Dennis Moore, fits the district perfectly and will prove to be a difficult opponent for Snowbarger. Moore, who lost a bid for Kansas state attorney general in 1986, has spent the last decade in private practice.

Democrats portray Moore as a moderate, though Republicans undoubtedly will argue that his positions on abortion, gun owner rights and the minimum wage are typical of the more liberal wing of his party.

Neither Moore nor Snowbarger ended 1997 with all that much money in the bank, but the expected closeness of the contest and interest likely generated among national interest groups suggest that both the campaigns and independent expenditure groups will spend plenty of money in Kansas 3. The outcome could well be in doubt as Election Day approaches.

In Other News

Tuesday Feb. 24, 1998

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White House Scandal At A Glance

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