How to Lose Elections and Negatively Influence People

Campaigns seem permanent, and permanently annoying. To complain about it ignores history: Candidates always have been engaged in constant plotting. Grant Sawyer used to tell his staff when he was Nevada’s governor from 1959 to 1967 that politics and policy—or politics and governance—are inseparable. If you can’t get elected, how do you govern? If you can’t govern, how do you get reelected?

Simply put, how officeholders vote reflects a confluence of factors—ideology, getting along with colleagues, establishing credibility in the elected body and with voters at home, and remembering that both elections and votes have consequences.

So, consider the news that Erin Bilbray-Kohn—Nevada’s Democratic national committeewoman and the daughter of former four-term representative, state senator and regent Jim Bilbray—may challenge Joe Heck for re-election in House District 3 in 2014. Heck easily defeated John Oceguera, but Bilbray-Kohn would have several benefits Oceguera lacked: As a woman, she may energize a voting group that Oceguera couldn’t reach in the same way; as a non-officeholder, she doesn’t have the same record to attack; and she has deep roots in her party.

Unlike most of his GOP colleagues, Heck isn’t in a “safe”—as in safely gerrymandered—district. So he is co-sponsoring the ridiculous “No Budget, No Pay” act that has been one of the key issues for his fellow Nevada Republican, Dean Heller. The bill is cynical and crudely populist, but it appeals to voters with a “throw the bums out” mentality (that is, unless voters think that the bums are the ones crafting the bill).

Heck also voted against raising the debt limit and issued a statement out of Tea Party Talking Points 101—“I have said repeatedly that I would not consider voting to raise the debt limit unless there were major spending reductions included in the bill.” This can be taken to mean that he doesn’t mind if the U.S. defaults, which could throw the global economy into (even more) chaos.

So, Heck has a problem. If he tacks too far right, he risks losing the independent and moderate voters he won in 2012 and, to a lesser degree, in 2010. But if he doesn’t tack far enough right, he offends his base.

Nevada’s other Republican representative, Mark Amodei, represents Nevada’s solidly Republican northern tier. But, like Heck, he could be sandwiched between ideologies.

As 2012 ended, Amodei was the only Nevadan to vote against the bill that kept the country from going over the “fiscal cliff.” After doing so, he made a couple of admissions to the Las Vegas Sun that could haunt him:

Admission 1: “I’m bummed out because I’m feeling pretty uneffective. It’s a pretty humbling day for the new guy.” This comes off not only as ungrammatical (or ingrammatical), but also as unwise. If you ran against Amodei, wouldn’t you love to have him calling himself ineffective?

Admission 2: He said that if he had voted the other way, he didn’t think he could “go home and look my folks in the eye.” He mentioned that in the 2010 Senate race, his district had voted for Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite.

What would he fear? Apparently, an Angle-style primary opponent. Since the ideological base of both parties turns out in primaries, he would be in trouble. But his description of his district ignores moderately conservative Republicans, especially in Reno (and Carson City, which he once represented as a moderate conservative in the state Senate).

Finally, Amodei presumably hadn’t seen a recent USA Weekend study of diversity that should concern Republicans. The study created an index based on the probability that two randomly chosen people in a given county are of different race or ethnicity. Nationally, the index is 55 percent, up from 40 just two decades ago. One Nevada county is above the current national average: Clark. This should concern Heck. Meanwhile, of the six Nevada jurisdictions with the next highest probabilities—ranging from 45 to 55—five are in Amodei’s district.

In 2012, Republicans lost in part by ignoring or railing against changing demographics instead of embracing them. As Heck and Amodei help make policy in Congress, the dictum of Sawyer, a liberal Democrat, should be ringing in their ears.

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