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Nevada Dems Heartened By Crowded GOP Field In 1st District Race

By Marc Birtel, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, Aug. 22, 1998) -- For the past four years, the congressman from Las Vegas has defied tough electoral odds.

Despite the city's long history of favoring Democrats, conservative sophomore Republican John Ensign swept into office in 1994, squeaking out a 1,436-vote victory over Democratic Rep. James P. Bilbray. Two years later, he won again, but he was held to 50 percent even after outspending his opponent 3 to 1.

This year, Ensign is moving on, eschewing a bid for a third House term to instead mount a high-profile challenge to two-term Democratic Sen. Harry Reid. Nevada Democrats are excited about their prospects, savoring the chance to bring Ensign's 1st District back to their column. National Democrats place the race at the top of their target list, touting President Clinton's 14-point victory there in 1996, as well as a 31,000-vote advantage in party registration. (Freshman Republican Jim Gibbons, whose 2nd District takes in the rest of the state, faces only minor-party opposition in the fall.)

Nevada Democrats also are heavily touting their candidate, state university regent Shelley Berkley, who showed over $545,000 cash on hand as of June 30 and faces only minor opposition in the Sept. 1 primary.

But district Republicans have a more difficult task in selecting their nominee from nine candidates. Polls indicate that four of them stand in serious contention for the nomination.

The perceived front-runner is former state district judge Don Chairez, a former Democrat who switched parties last year and wavered until 15 minutes before the filing deadline to resign his judgeship and plunge into the race. Despite his late start, Chairez has topped the primary field in fundraising, and stands as the only GOP candidate who has been elected districtwide.

Running after Chairez is cable television executive Esther Quisenberry, a political newcomer who calls herself the only GOP candidate with a business-related background. Quisenberry, aware of Ensign's odds-breaking success, hired the same campaign consultant used by Ensign in 1994.

And running to the right of both Chairez and Quisenberry is teacher Jim Blockey, an anti-abortion activist who is using social and moral issues as pillars of his campaign. State university regent Nancy Price, a vocal foe of Berkley, is also in the hunt.

The winner of the GOP primary will likely have to replenish campaign coffers after the competitive primary and boost fundraising efforts to try to catch up with Berkley's strong fundraising figures. But Berkley continues to be hampered by ethical questions, made public in June, about a tape-recorded conversation in which she admitted advising a casino executive to make campaign donations to curry favors with politicians and judges.

GOP Gubernatorial Comeback?

Nevada Republicans have experienced a 20-year dry spell in their quest to take over the governor's mansion. This year marks their best chance to win in recent years, with Democratic Gov. Bob Miller forced to leave after serving the maximum two terms.

Many Republicans jokingly refer to GOP candidate Kenny Guinn as "the anointed one." He started fundraising and blazing the campaign trail two years ago and has won the backing of most of the state's GOP establishment, including the state party chairman, despite having two formidable primary opponents.

Guinn's early entry allowed him to shore up key support, winning the critical financial backing of the casino industry. Guinn also is winning over voters by recalling his experience as a businessman and stints as the Clark County schools superintendent and interim president of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. A junior high school in Las Vegas is named after him -- testimony to his popularity before ever being elected to any public office.

According to polls, the candidate who could potentially spoil Guinn's bid is movie producer Aaron Russo, perhaps best known for his longtime partnership with Bette Midler. A recent transplant from California, Russo is expected to pump more than $2 million of his own money to spread his anti-government message. But Russo has had to fight off the label of carpetbagger, weathering charges that he does not own a home in Nevada and still has his car registered in California.

The other wild card is Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren, who despite his last-minute entry into the contest has high name recognition and the personal wealth to lodge an ad blitz in the final weeks approaching the primary. Rumors had circulated that Hammargren would drop out of the race earlier this month, but he decided to stick out the race, all the while criticizing the casino industry's influence in the process.

On the Democratic side, Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones is considered the leader, despite her last-minute decision to run. Jones already has statewide exposure from a unsuccessful primary challenge against Miller four years ago, although she was soundly defeated by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Her main primary opponent is state Sen. Joe Neal, who has made political enemies for his refusal to vehemently oppose a proposed nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain that he believes is inevitable.

Fight for Senate

Reid and Ensign have wasted no time taking the gloves off in one of the country's most closely watched Senate contests. Both candidates have raised more than $2 million for their campaigns and began earlier this month running negative ads against each other, a full three months before the November election. Neither Reid nor Ensign has any serious primary opposition.

A Mason-Dixon poll taken earlier this month showed Reid holding on to a 6-point lead, 46 percent to 40 percent, with 14 percent undecided.

Ensign turned some heads in July after deciding to relocate his family from Las Vegas to Reno, a Republican-leaning area widely considered to be vital for Ensign to win in November.

Democrats have taken some heat after allegedly trying to place a personal ad in a Reno alternative newspaper indicating that Ensign was seeking a homosexual relationship. The state party investigated the prank but said it was unable to determine the perpetrator.

©1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
Congressional Quarterly This Week

August 25, 1998

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