TOPICS > Politics

New Nevada Congressional District Race Unleashes Big Money and Attacks

October 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
There's big money, aggressive attacks, a famous family name, racial tensions and a potential, looming bankruptcy, all playing out in a House district that covers half the state of Nevada. Mitch Fox of Vegas PBS reports on the contest between Steven Horsford (D) and Danny Tarkanian (R) in Nevada's new 4th Congressional District.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we take a look at the campaign for the House of Representatives. Few contests are being watched as closely as the fight for a new congressional seat in battleground Nevada. It’s a seat both parties would dearly love to win.

But, as Mitch Fox of Vegas PBS reports, there are no safe bets.

His story is part of our new collaboration with public media partners across the country, as we bring you reports from areas that will likely determine the outcome of the election in a series we call Battleground Dispatches.

MITCH FOX, Vegas PBS: During the last decade, Nevada was the fastest-growing state in the nation and picked up an additional seat in Congress. Democrats enjoy a 13.5 percent voter registration advantage in that new district. But before you bet the well-funded Democratic candidate here is a shoo-in, remember the old adage all politics is local.

The complexities of this race read like a novel. There’s big money, aggressive attacks, a famous family name, even a potential bankruptcy looming. And it’s all playing out in a district that covers half the state.

Democratic state Senator Steven Horsford is having the fight of his life, down in every poll, sometimes by double digits, because of this man, Republican Danny Tarkanian, the son of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Horsford has been appealing to the 55 percent of voters who registered as Democrats to win this sprawling and increasingly diverse district, from its sparsely populated mining communities to the densely populated Latino and African-American neighborhoods in the northern tip of the Las VegasValley.

Both candidates are spending a lot of time on the road to meet with voters. Horsford is currently the majority leader of the state Senate and has focused his campaign on economic issues.

STEVEN HORSFORD (D), Nevada Congressional candidate: What I have heard from the voters is the same thing: What are we going to do to get people working and grow the economy? How are we going to address the housing crisis? And what are you going to do to protect Medicare and Social Security? I have strong positions on those issues. My opponent doesn’t.

MITCH FOX: Tarkanian has benefited from his family’s well-known name here, but failed to win an election in three prior attempts at public office. He has his own take on this race.

DANNY TARKANIAN (R), Nevada Congressional candidate: I have tried very hard to get out to all the different areas within the communities. I have had business meetings — I have had meetings with business leaders in the African-American community talking about businesses that are there and how we can help them get started and expand.

At the same time, I have been out in Yerington talking to the onion farmers and some of the ranchers about issues that they’re dealing with, with workers and so forth. So, I have tried very hard to be a good representative and get a good understanding of what’s important for those constituents.

MITCH FOX: In August, the campaign was infused with racial tension when Tarkanian seemed to suggest that Horsford was relying on his own ethnicity to win support from African-American voters.

While defending himself in front of a gathering of Republicans, Tarkanian said he could — quote — “be like Steven Horsford, who is not doing anything with that community and pretend we’re black” — end quote.

Tarkanian apologized and ended up picking up the support of the local NAACP president.

Patricia Cunningham is a local talk radio host.

PATRICIA CUNNINGHAM, talk show host: The Tarkanian name is one of the most recognizable names in the history of collegiate basketball. Not only is it a recognizable name; it is a name that African-American athletes and their families have embraced, because his father reached out to African-American athletes when no other Division I program or few Division I programs were willing to open the door.

MITCH FOX: Despite the benefit of name recognition, Tarkanian is facing growing legal and financial problems that have complicated his campaign and opened him up to criticism.

He and his family were recently hit with a $17 million judgment by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC, because of a failed land deal.

STEVE SEBELIUS, The Las Vegas Review-Journal: The FDIC is moving to seize his assets, perhaps his house.

MITCH FOX: Steve Sebelius is a columnist for The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

STEVE SEBELIUS: There’s no legal or tactical reason that any reasonable person wouldn’t have already filed for bankruptcy, unless they’re running for office and they’re afraid of a flyer or a TV ad that says, he’s actually running for bankruptcy.

I believe, win or lose, he’s going to have to file. And that presents certain problems. I mean, here, Danny Tarkanian will be involved in litigation against the very government that he now is going to be representing, assuming he wins.

MITCH FOX: Early voting trends are favoring Democrats in Nevada. And for Horsford’s part, he is hoping President Obama will win the battleground state and help sweep his congressional campaign to victory as well.

But the race has made Democrats nervous. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has blasted Tarkanian for the bad land deal. And super PACs are helping to bolster Tarkanian’s campaign by inundating the airwaves with blistering attack ads aimed at Horsford.

It’s one race, but it matters to the bigger picture, as Democrats look to Nevada’s Fourth District as one of the 25 net seats they need to win back the House.

In the end, Tarkanian is depending on rural voters, who tend to be Republican and turn out to vote in greater numbers than the Democrats. Horsford is relying on the Democratic machine developed by Senator Reid in Nevada and a voter registration advantage to squeak past his opponent in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation.

GWEN IFILL: Our next Battleground Dispatch will come from Iowa, where the issue of immigration is bubbling to the surface.