The race for Congress has already gone off the rails in what could be the nation’s most politically volatile state this year.
A veteran Democratic congresswoman is staring down challenges from the left and the right, while cursing in public about how her own party treated her in redistricting. Another Democratic incumbent’s wife has publicly shamed him for seeking reelection after an affair. And a notorious perennial candidate with a famous name is making either his sixth or seventh run for federal office — depending on what you count — launching a primary against his state’s only Republican congressman.
Welcome to the reality show that is Nevada’s 2022 congressional races.
“Everybody’s got the fangs out from before day one,” quipped Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.).
The chaos in Nevada has national implications. Republicans are just five seats away from reclaiming the House majority, and the state has quickly become a crucial battleground for control of the chamber this fall. That’s partly because Democrats made a risky redistricting gamble, stretching out their voters so that in a good election, they will easily hold the three Las Vegas-based seats out of Nevada’s four total House districts.
But in a bad environment, that redistricting decision means they will be in danger of losing all of the districts. And that’s the way the 2022 midterms appear to be shaping up, with President Joe Biden’s approval rating in the low 40s.
House Majority PAC, congressional Democrats’ main outside group, announced Wednesday it would reserve $11.6 million in TV ads in Las Vegas — more than it reserved in any other media market in the country, in a sign that its strategists believe they could have to defend all three seats.
None of the contests for the state’s four House seats will be easily won — and no incumbent is spared from hardship this year.
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus has been the most vocal in disparaging her party’s strategy, because her district morphed from a Las Vegas-centric seat that Biden carried by 26 points to one that now hugs the border with Arizona and went for Biden by 9 points.
Titus shocked Nevada political circles late last year by telling an AFL-CIO town hall audience that she felt the Legislature had screwed her on redistricting — using colorful terms.
“I spoke kind of out of school when I said that I got fucked,” she told POLITICO. “And I didn’t know there was press in the room or I would have been a little more circumspect. I don’t want my mother reading that.”
But Titus still maintains the map is a bad move. The other two downstate members, Democratic Reps. Steven Horsford and Susie Lee, received some of Titus’s old Democratic voters. Biden carried their new seats by 8 and 7 points, respectively.
“In a good year we will win them all. And in a bad year, it’s risky. The margins are small,” said Titus, who had advocated for two deep blue seats in Las Vegas and another swingy one. “If they had made the other two districts safe by taking my Democrats, then that would have been worth the sacrifice.”
“I guess somebody decided that we would roll the dice — it’s Nevada,” she added.
Titus is in a unique position with a competitive primary and general election ahead. She will face progressive challenger Amy Vilela in the mid-June for the Democratic nomination. Vilela is running a campaign advocating for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All and has the backing of progressive Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Nina Turner, an Ohio-based acolyte of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Titus is a co-sponsor of Medicare for All in Congress, but Vilela said she hasn’t done enough to promote universal health care or address the global climate crisis.
“In the past years, I mean there’s been maybe two tweets or two responses about Medicare for All. What are you actually doing to advance this in Congress?” Vilela said of Titus. “The complacency that’s been shown at every step of the way by my opponent is really not rising up to the urgency of where the constituents are in this district.”
The most prominent GOP contender for the seat is former Rep. Cresent Hardy, who represented a version of Horsford’s district from 2014 to 2016. He jumped into the race against Titus shortly before the filing deadline.
Hardy chose to run in that district because he believed the seat lacked a strong Republican and he is friendly with Sam Peters, the frontrunner in the GOP primary to challenge Horsford, according to people familiar with his thinking.
First elected in 2012, Horsford, a former leader in the Nevada state Senate, lost to Hardy in a shocking upset two years later amid lackluster midterm turnout. He returned in 2018 to face Hardy again and that time prevailed.
But Horsford has been mired in a personal scandal that has intensified in recent weeks. In May 2020, Horsford admitted to a long affair with a former intern for Sen. Harry Reid who had described their relationship in detail in a podcast titled, “Mistress for Congress.” He sought reelection anyway, winning by 5 points.
When he filed to run again in 2022, his wife wrote on Twitter that Horsford’s insistence on seeking another term would force her and their family “to endure yet another season of living through the sordid details of the #horsfordaffair with #mistressforcongress rather than granting us the time and space to heal.”
Horsford’s opponent, an Air Force veteran and insurance company owner, seized on the renewed interest in his transgressions and called on him to retire.
“It’s embarrassing, frankly, not just for the family,” Peters said. “But from a national standpoint, our congressional elected official is embroiled in this and he won’t address his own family, but he wants the families of Nevada to trust him to help theirs?”
In a statement released last week, Horsford made an appeal for privacy.
“I love my wife and family very much,” he said. “Obviously, the circumstances that have led us to this point have been very painful and I’m deeply remorseful for the hurt and pain I have caused. I understand my wife’s desire for privacy at this hard time, and I hope others will adhere to that as well.”
The other Democrat in the delegation, Lee, was first elected in 2018 to replace then-Rep. Jacky Rosen, who successfully ran for Senate. She will also face a challenging reelection. April Becker, an attorney, is the leading contender in the Republican primary to face her.
Republicans plan to revive attacks from last election accusing Lee of working on pandemic relief legislation to ensure it would benefit her family’s businesses. Her husband, Dan Lee, received paycheck protection program loans for his companies.
The National Republican Congressional Committee added Titus’s district this week to its target list, which already included Lee and Horsford. Because Amodei’s seat in the north of the state is deep red, there’s a chance they could control all four Nevada districts for the first time.
But Republicans will have at least one intraparty fracas to deal with. Amodei, the state’s only GOP congressman, got an eleventh-hour primary challenge.
Danny Tarkanian, a businessperson, attorney and son of famed UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, has unsuccessfully run three times for Senate, another three times for the House and for state Senate and Nevada secretary of state. This year, he launched a run against Amodei.
“Danny has been a very ambitious guy throughout his campaign career in Nevada,” Amodei said. “I guess it was my turn, which is fine.”
Tarkanian sought to challenge then-Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in 2017 when Heller was on the outs with Donald Trump. But Heller and Trump later mended their relationship and Trump defused the primary, with Tarkanian dropping out to run for the House that year instead.
Amodei said he plans to take the challenge seriously, making the case that he has done a good job looking out for the state as the only Nevada Republican in the House for the past two terms.
“I think I stood the watch at a time when there was only one person doing it, quite frankly, and we’re looking forward to running on that,” he said.
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