Nevada Democrats await effects of health-care vote

The simple question is, will Democrats Harry Reid, Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus pay a political price for doing the right thing and helping their fellow Americans get better health care?

Obviously, Reid and Titus already were in tough races. His polling numbers undeniably look bad, but writing him off is unwise. Sen. Reid has risen from the seemingly dead many times before. He is getting and will get strong support from gaming, the Democratic Party and Republicans with any sense. The Republican field against him ranges from the addled to the dishonest. And more people are likely to realize that his acumen in getting health care through the Senate may be the greatest legislative achievement since Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights. Really.

Rep. Titus’ district elected a Republican three times before she won a seat in Congress in 2008. Happily for her, a big chunk of it is her old state senate district, where she cruised to reelection four times. Also, she has made it a point to be in her district a lot—and after her defeat for governor in 2006, many undertakers gathered to bury her, and now she’s in the House.

Speaking of which, Rep. Berkley has what has been widely considered a safe seat. Republicans tried three times to defeat her but fell increasingly short of the mark, then largely conceded the district. They are showing signs of giving strong backing to businesswoman Michelle Fiore, but she’s a first-time candidate in what remains an overwhelmingly Democratic district.

None of which is to minimize the possible ill effects of their votes on health care, especially in tight races. But those who ask whether this will cost them votes might ask the question the opposite way: Would they have gained votes if they had opposed health care? The logical answer is no.

The venom with which the right has regularly attacked Reid and Titus wouldn’t go away with one vote. Neither of them is—at least in the minds of those who viscerally hate them without really being able to explain why—an unknown quantity. Health care doesn’t change that.

The media coverage and perceptions of them wouldn’t change. If Reid had turned on President Obama’s signature initiative, the story would have been the Democratic Party coming unglued at every level. If Titus had voted no, she would have been depicted as casting a vote against Obama solely for political purposes—and if she had voted no while Reid and/or Berkley voted yes, the rumors of ruptures among Nevada Democrats would have been hard to counter.

Would the Las Vegas Review-Journal have stopped its regular Sunday front-page love letters to Reid’s Republican challengers? Would it have stopped paying attention to a right-wing women’s group’s poll of 1,200 voters in 35 congressional districts to prove how Titus’ district felt about the bill? If Berkley is the Democratic nominee for the Senate in 2012, would the R-J or any other right-wing publication endorse her simply because she voted no on health care? Let’s give both sides of the spectrum credit for more ideological consistency and principle than that.

From the other side, some of Nevada’s truly liberal Democrats (they meet in the back seat of a Prius and have room to spare) or even rank-and-file Democrats took the all-or-nothing approach that has driven the party over the electoral cliff on several previous occasions. But voting against a bill and thereby crippling Obama’s presidency ultimately wouldn’t have endeared them to their base, which is far likelier to turn out in force with actual legislation having passed and grew energized in pushing for the bill.

Independents—a good term might be “knee-jerk moderates”—are the issue. Obama won them in 2008, and Reid and Titus have to win them in 2010. What drew them to Obama? A variety of factors. They may not welcome as much change as they are getting—or they may want more, which has prompted some of them to turn to the tea party.

But they are even less likely to welcome certain tendencies among the tea partiers and their Republican enablers, which includes ignoring or condoning those who use racial epithets.

So, the political effects remain to be seen. But about 28 percent of Berkley’s district and about 20 percent of Titus’ district lacks health insurance, and 23 percent of Nevadans are without it. Those numbers may matter in November.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.

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