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Hardball politics in Nevada

I doubt that Sen. Harry Reid is losing any sleep because of the indelicate remarks issued this week by one of his fellow senators at a GOP fundraising event in New York. According to reports, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn told the crowd that Reid “is an absolute asshole.” Previously, Coburn said Reid is “incompetent and incapable of leadership.”

Our senior senator isn’t exactly a limp-wristed combatant. He likes to mix it up and has been known to dish it out. For instance, he recently described Sen. Ted Cruz as “a laughing stock”, and opined that Sen. David Vitter “isn’t playing with a full deck.”

Politics is a contact sport, not an endeavor for those with weak knees or feint hearts. That is especially true in rootin’ tootin’, shoot-from-the-hip, anything-goes Nevada. Is there anyone who’s been pilloried more often or with more vitriol than Reid?

We play hardball here in the Silver State. Ask Shelley Berkley about that. Two years ago, a fairly mild ethics complaint against her was transformed into a scandal rivaling Tammany Hall. She was also pounded in TV ads for spending outrageous amounts of public dollars during a congressional junket to Europe, a “scandal” that was hyped beyond all recognition by her opponent. Berkley’s campaign did some mud-slinging of its own, implying that Dean Heller was mixed up in laundering drug money and stock swindles.

When you run for a major office in Nevada, you can expect to take a few shots to the gut, and maybe a few kicks to the gonads. There are no kid gloves here, no timeouts, no truces or issues-only campaigns. It’s all mud, all the time because slime works, slams hurt, and voters respond to those much-maligned negative ads. Sad but true.

In light of the long and colorful history of negative politics in our state, I’m, a bit surprised about the furor raised because of statements by congressional candidate Erin Bilbray. Good grief, you might think she had made disparaging remarks about the sexual history of Joe Heck’s mom or something, judging by all of the hand-wringing and caterwauling over the last week. Oh, the humanity.

I’ve met Erin Bilbray maybe three times in my life, so my impressions are based on about five minutes of face time we have shared. She always struck me as bright, energetic, and driven. A few months ago, she announced that she would be following in the footsteps of her father, former representative Jim Bilbray, by running for a congressional seat, specifically the one held by Republican incumbent Joe Heck. On the day Ms. Bilbray entered the race, Heck sent out a fundraising letter which referred to her as “a liberal activist, fundraiser, and Democratic spin doctor.” Pretty standard stuff, really, right from the GOP playbook. For at least the last 20 years or so, the first rule of engagement for Republicans is to label opponents as “liberals,” a word that they regard as being very naughty, something to be scrawled in bathroom stalls.

The rookie candidate probably went too far in her response to Heck’s missive. In truth, the incumbent didn’t exactly welcome Erin to the neighborhood or offer her a basket of cookies. He was taking a shot at her, right out of the gate. She responded by intimating that Heck and the Republicans wanted to keep women like her out of politics, that the negativity of political races was a way to discourage women from becoming candidates. The words she used during an appearance on Jon Ralston’s TV show were imprecise for sure. Bilbray said Heck was “wrong” and that “it discourages people from participating in the process…and that is un-American.”

Oh lordy, hoist the flag on Mt. Suribachi because someone just attacked Old Glory herself. It’s as if vandals scrawled graffiti on the Alamo or aimed a few shotgun shells at a bald eagle. Accuse Joe Heck of being un-American? How dare she? She might as well have driven her car into the Washington Monument or spit out a mouthful of Dolly Madison cupcakes. The ignominy of it all.

Republican Pollyannas are oh so shocked by this aberrant behavior on Bilbray’s part. Why, never have they seen such heinous behavior, and to think it is part of the sacred, sacrosanct election process, a place where there is no room for harsh language and impure thoughts. I read in the Review Journal that the GOP has demanded of Bilbray that she “take it back.”

What? Take it back? Should she jump in her Way-Back machine and travel back in time to prevent those foul words from ever being uttered? I mean, take it back? Really? Have you even heard such a demand since you graduated from elementary school?

One reason for the shock being expressed is because Heck has served in the military. He served in Iraq. He was a colonel in the Army Reserve. He’s practically Audie Murphy, a fact that will almost certainly be drilled into the heads of Nevada voters hundreds of times during the campaign to come (not that anyone would want to exploit their military service for political gain). The fact that Heck served in the military apparently means that he is above reproach. His patriotism and love of country can never be questioned, because to do so besmirches the flag, apple pie, and patriots like Tom Coburn. But I seem to remember another candidate and military veteran-a war hero, actually-whose military record was so thoroughly twisted and “swift boated” by Republican operatives that it was no longer recognizable. There may have been a time when a military record was considered unimpeachable in a political race, but that time is long gone. Nothing is off limits anymore.

Ms. Bilbray made a rookie mistake. She will likely make more of them before the long campaign is over. Even though she has worked for some time as a campaign consultant, this episode shows that being the candidate is tougher than working behind the scenes, and that anyone can stumble under the bright lights of a TV interview. But we shouldn’t allow this to be blown out of proportion or turned into something it isn’t.

She said it. Big deal. Somehow, I believe, a seasoned politico like Heck will manage to survive such a dastardly malignant. Heck is made of stern stuff, right, which is why we sent him to Iraq. My guess is that, before the campaign is over, Heck might have one or two unpleasant things to say about his opponent.

Bilbray is exactly right when she says that the kind of slimy attacks which have become standard operating procedure for the GOP and its third-party allies in recent elections tend to discourage normal people from seeking office. Democrats have likewise shown a willingness to get down in the gutter. There are legions of qualified people of excellent character who would never for a minute consider public service because they know that a campaign would mean that they will be attacked, relentlessly and frequently, and that truth will have little to do with it. Is it unAmerican? You tell me.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.