Primary Definitions

With five Democrats seeking three congressional seats, several are already energetically trying to define their opponents as “liberal” or “conservative.” With friends like these, who needs Republicans?

In District 1, Ruben Kihuen’s supporters—described in the Las Vegas Sun as “party insiders”—branded Dina Titus as conservative, which is news to her, her longtime supporters and the Republicans who have shamelessly depicted her for years as Dina Taxus, feminazi.

Titus isn’t conservative. Nor is she liberal, except by Nevada’s standards, which equate liberalism with occasionally favoring government, diversity and progress. Here, critics call Harry Reid liberal. Call him that if you want to cause hysterics in any city on the Eastern seaboard. Most Nevada Democratic candidates would be considered right-wingers in Massachusetts or New York.

If Titus seemed more conservative in Washington, D.C., than she had in the Legislature, there is a practical reason: Her state Senate district was heavily Democratic, but as the first Democrat in her House district, she represented a swing district—and a good politician doesn’t get too far ahead of or behind the voters. Now she’s running in what was largely Shelley Berkley’s district, a relative Democratic stronghold.

Also, Titus has a long voting record. It helped her win the Democratic primary for governor in 2006 against a conservative opponent. It may help her overcome this silliness, especially in a race against Kihuen, whose legislative accomplishments in six years in Carson City were just a bit thin.

In addition, attacking Titus in this manner could backfire in a couple of ways. First, it could alienate women voters. While Hispanic voters clearly helped Harry Reid in 2010, he had a closer call in 1998, when he won by 428 votes. That year, he benefited greatly from heading a Democratic ticket that included women running for the House, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Second, both parties err in treating Hispanics as monolithic. Are all Hispanics liberal? Ask Brian Sandoval. Nor do Hispanics have the same long history of party loyalty as African-Americans, who have supported the Democratic party since Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

But traditional alliances don’t signal ideological purity: Those who think African-Americans are completely liberal might ask how they have voted on gay marriage (answer: against). So anyone assuming permanent Hispanic loyalty to a liberal agenda should consider that Las Vegas has one of the nation’s fastest-growing Catholic dioceses, reflecting the Hispanic influx. The Catholic church isn’t easily pigeonholed, but more than 30 years of conservative popes have had an effect on its politics.

The Titus-Kihuen matchup has obscured the two other congressional races, yet they present similarities. As Assembly speaker, John Oceguera was too moderate for some liberals’ tastes, so he seems a logical candidate in a swing district against Joe Heck, who has tried to appeal to both Tea Partiers and more moderate Republicans.

The other Democratic primary pits state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, whose legislative district is moderately liberal, against colleague John Lee, who prides himself on being a conservative Mormon Democrat and cites that as the reason he can win the district, which includes a huge chunk of rural Nevada. Horsford might note that when Kate Marshall ran for the House and away from Barack Obama and most of the Democratic platform, she lost big.

As the two primaries may show, any party’s base tends to include the true believers. Thus is Titus suddenly depicted as conservative despite a moderate-to-liberal record, and Kihuen as liberal despite hardly any record at all. The games have indeed begun.