Is Mark Amodei Too Moderate?

A mainstream Republican congressional candidate learns to talk Tea Party

With less than a month to go before the special election to fill Dean Heller’s congressional seat, the race may have already hit its dramatic high point. That would be Republican Mark Amodei’s June campaign ad, in which a fictional Chinese newscast from the near future depicts how Democrats’ raising of the debt ceiling brought financial ruin to the United States and paved the way for China’s rise. The rather amusing ad sparked outrage from Asian-American groups and the left, but Amodei is convincing when he says he’s not a xenophobe and wasn’t criticizing the Chinese. He was attacking “our budget, our debt and our spending habits.” That’s clear enough. What’s less certain is whether anyone is paying attention.

Amodei is vying with Democratic state Treasurer Kate Marshall, and the race, commentators agree, is his to lose. For one, the Republicans always win the second Congressional district—which comprises Northern Nevada and a portion of Clark County—and Republicans have a 30,000-voter-registration advantage over Democrats. Marshall has raised more funds, but it’s “an overwhelming mountain for [her] to climb,” says University of Nevada, Reno political scientist Eric Herzig. And then there’s the nature of this election: It’s a one-off event, at an unusual time—Sept. 13, though early voting begins Aug. 27—when the weather in Southern Nevada is still scorching and parents are more focused on the start of the school year. Plus, whoever wins this race will have to run again next year.

Amodei leads by 13 points in the polls but insists victory is not a given. “Washoe County is a tough place for Republicans to compete countywide. Dean Heller had some trouble there in 2006; he beat Jill Derby by one point there in 2008. Sharron Angle obviously had problems against Harry Reid. Barack Obama did well there in 2008 versus John McCain.” Meanwhile Marshall is flinging hard ads back at Amodei, but the common wisdom is he’ll prevail.

What could hurt Amodei is that, despite his cheeky China ad, there’s a sense that the congenial, laid-back candidate is not the ideological firebrand Republican voters are looking for. UNLV political scientist Dave Damore suggests that Amodei “does not exactly stir the passions of the base and thus far, his campaign effort has been lackluster and has relied quite a bit on the national party.” “Mark’s kind of a low-key guy,” says Herzig. “He’s not a bad candidate, but if there’s a knock on Mark Amodei, it’s whether he’s really got that fire.”

For now Amodei is the man for Northern Nevada Republicans. But if he loses, they’re ready to pin their passionate hopes on next year’s race, which they’re already envisioning as one of those “most important election in a generation, turning point in American politics” opportunities. In other words, 2012 figures to be an even less congenial environment for mild-mannered moderates than 2011. So as this year’s race plods along, it’s fascinating to see how a mainstream Republican candidate responds to the rightward shift in his own party.

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Amodei traces his Nevada roots back to the 1860s, when his family settled in Virginia City. Amodei grew up in Carson City, received his law degree from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Army. Upon his discharge he went into private practice. He spent two years in the state Assembly before beginning three terms as a state senator; he left office in 2010. He’s also served as chairman of the Nevada GOP and head of the Nevada Mining Association.

Amodei says he liked the idea of ending his 14-year state legislative career being able to say he retired and wasn’t voted out. But he was roused by the GM bailout and the Obama administration’s health care reform to return to politics. These grand federal moves, as well as the bank bailout and the stimulus package, left him with a “fundamental belief that the direction of the federal government has changed very precipitously in the last four or five years … and where we’re headed bears no resemblance to our system. … This is fundamentally threatening to what we’ve known as a private-sector-dominant, capitalism, self-reliance sort of economy.”

In these ideologically charged times, Amodei is talking big. His chief marker is his insistence that he would have voted no to the debt-ceiling compromise, a bill that allowed the debt ceiling to grow to more than $2 trillion in exchange for a bipartisan super commission to dream up ways to cut spending. Amodei’s line in the sand is meant to earn him points with more conservative Republicans, and at little political cost—after all, hardly anyone thinks the bill was a good one.

Amodei continues to catch some flak among conservative Republicans for voting to back the largest tax increase in the state’s history in 2003. He says he supported the tax hike to stave off a larger gross receipts tax being considered by Gov. Kenny Guinn—and other Republicans backed the vote that year. “Eight or nine of us in the Senate just thought it was anathema for Nevada to have an income tax on anything. That’s what we sell here in this state. So we dug in and said here’s a way to raise [revenue] without having an income tax.

“It’s not like you never vote for one,” he adds, speaking of tax hikes. “There are times when it’s probably appropriate. But this is a recession. This is a time that [the current administration] has gone on a spending spree, which has produced no results. Why would you do something to enable the continuation of that?”

This kind of measured on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinking is clearly out of favor with Tea Party conservatives. It’s not enough to say that tax increases are a bad idea right now. The anti-tax position is expected to be universal and immutable. So, if you’re Mark Amodei, what do you do to assuage the most active and committed branch of the party?

“The new Nevada Republican playbook is, ‘I used to be a more centrist guy, but I’m on the more rigid party line,’” says Bill Raggio, the former longtime Republican state senator. A moderate Republican who self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a RINO (Republican in Name Only—a tag hardline conservatives have applied to moderates), he adds that figures such as Heller, Brian Sandoval and now Amodei are “wrapping themselves in Tea Party cloth.” Raggio, who retired from the state Senate after almost 40 years—the longest run in the senate’s history—dislikes candidates making absolutist pledges about what they will do in office. He puts Amodei’s opposition to debt-ceiling increases in that category. “I think that if you are elected to a position and you’re going to sign a pledge that says you’re never going to do this or that, I think that’s a disservice. The oath you take is you’re supposed to support the Constitution. I think you have to roll with the punches and see what the situation is.”

Amodei says it’s not a matter of appeasing a wing of the party, but of responding properly to circumstances. “I don’t think it’s Republican candidates [who] need to tack to the right. We are in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression. That should cause certain things to be incredibly sensitive with you, regardless of what your politics are. I think you have to tack to the facts.”

Away from the hype surrounding the federal debt, one suspects Amodei’s real passions lie in his belief that the federal government—the state’s major landowner—has to help kick-start economic development by freeing up land for mining or renewable energy. “Permitting is key,” he says. “The problem right now is there’s almost a de facto shutdown just by how long it takes to process a request.” He wants to get back to what he calls “realistic processing of land-use actions. The fact that you’re not doing it is killing the potential utilization of the relevant portions of their holdings in Nevada.”

Amodei suggests that this race is the beginning of a series of events—including the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas in October, the presidential caucus in March and the congressional primary in June—that could all reverberate into the 2012 general election. “You’re looking at a pretty dynamic nine months potentially for Republicans to be active,” he says.

Still, finishing out Heller’s term is just a one-year proposition, so this term will be little more than dry run.  Amodei may thrive as a moderate now, but it’s next year’s election that threatens to devour congenial, laid-back, practical Republicans.