The Northern Seat or the Rural Seat?

If you live in Clark County, you may have the tendency not to pay much attention to the race in Congressional District 2.  It actually includes parts of Clark County, but not much of the urban area.  And it’s well worth your while.

     Republican Mark Amodei and Democrat Kate Marshall are toe-to-toe in the first special House election in Nevada history.  The special election is unusual, but so far their campaigns don’t seem to be.  Amodei — a former state senator known in the legislature as a moderate — is running to the right to appeal to his base.  Marshall, the state treasurer, still isn’t all that well-known and has been attacking Washington, D.C.  So far, nothing weird.

     But Marshall has more money than Amodei, which is a bit strange.  For one, it’s a heavily Republican district that no Democrat ever has won, so Marshall doesn’t exactly come in with an advantage that would inspire donors.  For another, Amodei is far better wired into northern Nevada money than Marshall is or should be.  Amodei was a longtime state senator who became the head of the Nevada Mining Association, meaning he had time to build up a lot of useful relationships.  Before becoming state treasurer, Marshall made her name as the founder of the antitrust division of the Nevada attorney
general’s office, meaning her job was to make business act responsibly.

     All of which presents possibilities.  Democrats look longingly at this district.  They never have won it, but what if?  The race earlier this year in western New York went Democratic because the party focused on Medicare and Republican cuts, while a third-party candidate split off some of the Republican vote.  The latter isn’t
happening here.  As for the former, the negotiations over the debt ceiling may lead to cuts in social programs, eliminating Marshall’s ability to hammer Amodei and Republicans on that point—and rural Nevadans aren’t that excited about social programs anyway because they don’t think they benefit from them as much as they do.

     So, what is Marshall to do?  She may whack Amodei around on ethics. He was a state senator and became the head of the Nevada Mining Association, and claimed that taking that job and giving up his legal work actually reduced his conflicts
of interest.  Will voters buy that if it’s hammered into their heads?  Also, Amodei introduced a tax hike proposal at the 2003 legislature as a counter to Gov. Kenny Guinn’s plan.  In 2004, a then-unknown doctor, Joe Heck, defeated longtime State Sen. Ann O’Connell by attacking her as a tax-and-spender for supporting Guinn’s plan, although that may have been the only tax hike O’Connell voted for in her life.  Could Marshall come at Amodei that way?

     More interestingly, she’s reportedly all but conceding Carson City because that’s Amodei’s longtime home turf.  But she has lived in Reno for more than a decade.  Republicans have a 2,000-vote advantage in Washoe County, but the majority of the district’s population resides there.  And Marshall could test an interesting question about Nevada:  Is it split between north and south, or is the split urban and rural?  Nevada is the nation’s most urbanized state, with more than 90 percent of its 2.7 million living in towns or cities.  By running to the right, Amodei tries to reach not only his base, but also rural Republicans.

     So, what if Marshall convinces Reno’s population that Amodei wants to take away its federal money and help rural Nevada?  What if she makes the point that she lives in Reno and Amodei does not, and therefore she understands a big city’s needs?  That she backs the federal education and arts funding that helps Reno, whose population has been culturally supportive and attuned in ways that rural Nevadans (and, for that matter, too many Las Vegans) have not?  These scenarios are all unlikely, but worth pondering in an unprecedented race for the House in Nevada.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.