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Hugh Jackson: It’s not about the candidates

Before examining a surprisingly improved outlook for Democratic candidates seeking federal office in Nevada, a crucial reminder is in order: It’s not about the candidates.

Democrats need to pick up 25 seats nationwide to end the Tea Party’s control of the House of Representatives, and two Nevada House seats are competitive. Republicans need to flip only four seats to control the Senate. If Shelley Berkley beats Dean Heller in Nevada, the Republicans would have to pick up five seats elsewhere. TV-ready mini-outrages and micro-scandals will heavily influence Nevada’s election results. But personal flaws and policy clunkers are not what the election is about. The election is about who controls Congress.

Now, about those improved prospects …

U.S. Senate, Shelley Berkley vs. Dean Heller: Perhaps no campaign in America is more disconnected from things that actually matter to people than the campaign run on behalf of Dean Heller by John Ensign crony Mike Slanker. Heller’s campaign is a classic sample of the Slanker genre: Relentless personal attacks on your opponent while saying nothing relevant or even serious about anything else.

The customary Slanker slash-and-burn worked efficiently in congressional races in 2004 and 2006. But in 2008, when things, you know, changed, Slanker didn’t change with them, and he still hasn’t. He is running a one-note campaign based on ethics allegations against Berkley, and that note is not resonating as powerfully as Slanker, Heller and most media pundits thought it would. Blundering military adventurism and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression have transformed America’s political psyche over the last several years. But Slanker still thinks it’s 2004.

Meantime, the Berkley palm has gone to the Berkley forehead: Barack Obama will win Nevada, maybe by a lot, and it’s better to run with the president than from him. More importantly, Berkley, or at least her campaign, has started pushing the fairness argument so central to Obama’s message in a manner that almost suggests Berkley actually gets it. One never knows with Berkley, who too often echoes Republicans on things like protecting “small business” tax breaks that are actually big business tax breaks, opposing the “death” tax and knee-jerk fealty to right-wing Israeli warmongers. But her latest campaigns ads (in addition to being much better looking than earlier efforts) tout the importance of extending unemployment benefits with an unexpected (for Berkley) “we’re all in this together” vibe. Who knows, if this keeps up, she may even say the word “Democrat” in an ad.

The fundamentals of the Heller-Berkley race remain unchanged: He’s a cute blonde and she isn’t. But steady advantages in Democratic voter registration, Nevada’s demographic destiny (Berkley is also slamming Heller’s opposition to the DREAM Act in Spanish ads) and the non-germane nature of Heller’s campaign combine to give Berkley a good shot against Heller, which is a much better position than most people thought Berkley would be in by now.

Third Congressional District, Joe Heck vs. John Oceguera: Neither candidate has anything serious to say and this race is unwatchable.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started hitting Heck on TV last week for siding with his party’s Todd Akin wing on women’s health issues. Fair enough.

The Democratic appeal to women has the potential to get much uglier. The website Buzzfeed reported last month that Heck’s first wife accused him of assault in divorce documents 25 years ago. It’s an old, murky story, and fraught with risk. But Democrats, or a Democratically aligned independent-expenditure PAC (they’re not coordinated with campaigns!) may go there, especially since Heck’s campaign will consist almost exclusively of attempting to destroy Oceguera’s conduct and character because Oceguera the erstwhile fireman claims he was fighting fires in North Las Vegas over the phone as he was doing cardio on the Stairmaster he installed in the state capitol in Carson City. Democrats will seek to muddy things up best they can. As mentioned above, none of these races are about the candidates themselves. With respect to this pair of pandering hacks, that’s almost comforting.

Oceguera has to buy some name recognition, get some coattails from the aforementioned Democratic registration gains, benefit from Obama turnout (Obama carried a slightly differently drawn CD3 by 12 points in 2008) and hope that women in particular show up in force. Using the words “Tea Party” every time Oceguera mentions Joe Heck wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

The DCCC wouldn’t spend money in the district if they didn’t think Oceguera still had a decent shot, and that’s good news for Democrats who want to see the end of Tea Party control of the House, since many people had written Oceguera off early in the campaign.

Fourth congressional district, Steven Horsford vs. Jerry Tarkanians’s son: The coach’s kid is a proud Republican “Tea Party radical” and a laughingstock. But he’s a laughingstock with name recognition.

Democrats have a 10-point voter registration advantage in the district. If Horsford can’t beat a jobless perennial loser who through a lack of simple due diligence and/or an illustration of Republican fiscal responsibility appears to have financially ruined not only himself but his family, including the father who is the one and only reason the son manages to get on the ballot virtually every campaign cycle — if Horsford can’t beat that guy, Horsford doesn’t deserve to be in the U.S. House of Representatives. Tark, presumably, is toast, which means one less clown voting for Tea Party control of the Congress.

Did I mention that’s what the election is about?

HUGH JACKSON blogs at The Las Vegas Gleaner ( and contributes to KSNV Channel 3.