Heck of a Shutdown

Did Nevada’s seemingly invincible congressman turn his race into a real contest?

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh


In the middle of the federal government shutdown, a Democratic party insider said to me, “A week ago, I wouldn’t have given you odds that [challenger] Erin Bilbray-Kohn could beat [Nevada Republican Congressman] Joe Heck. Now I think she can do it.”

That’s one potential result of the 16-day shutdown and attendant political circus that nearly led to the nation defaulting on its sovereign debt. The Republican effort to kill a law by doing in the democratic government that created it brought to mind the philosopher George Santayana’s maxim: “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” And that kind of fanaticism has its costs: Tea Party brinkmanship might have played well in certain safe districts, but it may have dented Heck’s aura of inevitability.

Heck represents a divided 3rd district. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 136,744 to 127,176, but about 20,000 Libertarians and Independent Americans, and some of the 66,000-plus rightward-tilting nonpartisans help him. And the party that doesn’t hold the White House has a historical advantage in midterm congressional elections. Heck is also helped by uncertainty about how strong a candidate Bilbray-Kohn will be. A longtime political activist, a third-generation Democratic politician and a woman, she could do quite well. But it’s her first run on her own, and she’s up against a well-known candidate with a seasoned campaign team.

Heck, meanwhile, is just cynical enough to believe that voters won’t see through him. He voted for the resolution that ended the crisis and passed the House, 285-144. “As I have stated all along,” he announced, “the health care law must be repealed, repaired and replaced because of the burdens it places on individuals, families and businesses. But not at the expense of a prolonged government shutdown.” This is insulting on several levels. If that’s how Heck feels, why did he vote with his party leadership every time to keep the government shut down until the final vote, an estimated $24 billion in economic damage after the shutdown began?

In 2012, Heck received 10,000 more votes than there were Republicans in his district. More than 20,000 Democrats chose not to vote for his opponent. Granting this reminder that Democrats have a special talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Heck might not want to dismiss half of his district so easily. Even his Northern Nevada colleague Mark Amodei, who went from moderate state senator in Carson City to meshugana congressman (check your Yiddish dictionary) in Washington, D.C., told the Las Vegas Sun that Heck’s “gotta be mindful of who his folks are.”

Whether Bilbray-Kohn can take advantage of this is hard to say. The election is still a year away. Will the public forget? After all, the Beltway media observing all this just announced that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is tough and shrewd, which they discover every six months or so. If the media can’t remember something that obvious, should we expect voters to do so?

Chickens coming home to roost?

Republicans dreading a 2014 lieutenant governor’s primary between anointed candidate Mark Hutchison and former U.S. Senate candidate Sue Lowden might have other cause for concern. Governor Brian Sandoval put Nevada solidly behind Obamacare. Hutchison, his chosen candidate, represented the State in the lawsuit that failed to get it declared unconstitutional. Lowden famously suggested bartering chickens instead.

Either one could face considerable clucking over that from the Democratic candidate. Better yet, the Democrat could argue that Sandoval hopes to leave the governorship in 2016 for the Senate or the Cabinet, and letting either Republican succeed him could destroy the health care programs he supported

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