Tight Nevada Senate race may hinge on voter turnout for presidential race

The Senate race in Nevada is coming down to the wire with less than three weeks before the election, and with the balance of power in the Senate potentially on the line the contest is one of the most bitter in the Silver State’s history.

Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, is facing a challenge from Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. Heller was appointed to the seat after the resignation of Sen. John Ensign amid misconduct allegations. Berkley, who faces conflict of interest allegations in the House Ethics Committee, contends Heller is too partisan and is the wrong choice for Nevadans who are facing what’s seen as the toughest economy in the nation.

This key presidential swing state has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and its home foreclosure rates are near national highs.

“Nobody works harder than me to keep people in their homes and do everything I can to make sure that people that are in foreclosure have alternatives to losing their homes. And I work very, very hard to make sure that we keep people in their homes,” Berkley said in a debate Monday.

Despite agreement about the biggest problems facing their state, Berkley and Heller are deeply and ideologically divided on how to fix them.

"I didn't ever think it was going to be easy,” Heller said. "I have a solid opponent, and she's doing a very good job for her party, for her ideas.  We just disagree on what direction we think this country ought to go."

The Real Clear Politics polling average in the race shows Heller maintaining a thin, 3-percentage-point lead over Berkley, and the race is considered to be a toss-up. Heller thinks the presidential race may make the difference in whether he goes back to Washington.

“I think it's 50-50 right now,” Heller said. “It's interesting watching the numbers bounce around a little bit, but you know, I believe it has a lot to do with how the presidential race goes. If Romney does well, I think we do well, and I'm counting on him doing well.”

Political observers in Nevada agree.

“I think it's going to depend a lot on the top of the ticket, how the president does here,” said Jon Ralston, a long-time political journalist in Las Vegas who has moderated a debate between Berkley and Heller.  “It's just about turnout and who can get their people out. There's not one issue that's sticking out in the race.”  

Republicans may have reason to be concerned about election day turnout. Democrats have led a massive effort in the state to increase their voter registration roles. Clark County, the county in which Las Vegas sits and that contains more than half the state’s population, has seen a recent increase in the number of registered Democrats. When voter registration in Nevada closed earlier this month, Democrats held a nearly 130,000 voter advantage over Republicans.

“If all those vote for Shelley Berkley, that's a problem for him,” Ralston said. But he adds Berkley still needs a strong showing by President Obama to edge out Heller. “I think she needs Obama to win the state by more than 5 points to win the race.”

While Obama and Romney are playing central roles in the Senate race, the Senate’s majority leader, Nevada’s senior senator, has not: Harry Reid has not appeared in TV ads for Berkley, and Heller doesn’t tie his opponent to him.

“I'm waiting for the Harry Reid ad to come out supporting my opponent. I haven't seen it yet. I'm sure it's been cut,” Heller said. “You know, Harry stayed out of this for the most part.”

Which may be a good thing for Heller, who would want to be seen by voters as someone who could work across the aisle after the election.

“Sen. Reid and I are going to work together beyond Nov. 7 and moving forward,” Heller said. “I think that's important for the state of Nevada, and I really see the state moving forward, because the two senators are going to get along just fine.”

Voters in Nevada will soon begin deciding if Heller gets that chance.  Early voting starts on Saturday.