Nevada Bucks Trend, Sends Republicans to Washington

Defying the national trend, Republicans held onto their Senate seat from Nevada and turned back stiff challenges to win two of three seats in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

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Rep. Jon Porter squeaked out a late-night victory against a Democratic newcomer by just 4,000 votes. The two-term congressman carried his suburban Las Vegas district with 48 percent of the vote, compared with Democrat Tessa Hafen's 47 percent.

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In northern Nevada, Republican Secretary of State Dean Heller successfully fended off a strong Democratic challenge on GOP turf to win election to the House with 50 percent of the vote to Jill Derby's 46 percent.

Voters also sent Republican Sen. John Ensign and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley back to Washington.

Ensign handily defeated Jack Carter, the son of former President Jimmy Carter, and Berkley breezed past Republican unknown Kenneth Wegner.

Both Hafen, a former press secretary to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and Derby, a university regent, tried to link their opponents to President Bush and his policies in Iraq.

But Nevada voters bucked the national wave that delivered Democrats control of the House and tightened the Senate.

Still, Republican victors struck a humbled tone as they tried to tell voters that the message was received.

"America has spoken and so has Nevada. We have to start working together," Porter told The Associated Press.

"I better be able to work with (Democrats), voters in Nevada are counting on it," said Heller, who won an open seat after watching his opponent make headway in rural Republican strongholds and Reno's Washoe County.

Derby won 50 percent of the vote in Washoe and ran stronger than other Democrats in Nevada's ranching and mining territory. Still, Heller's majorities in those areas proved insurmountable.

Exit polls showed Nevadans share in the discontent with the president and the Republican-led Congress, but their frustration didn't necessarily translate into votes against familiar faces or ballots for Democrats.

Half of Nevadans disapproved of Bush, according the exit survey, but one quarter of those voters chose Ensign, a first-term incumbent and reliable Bush ally.

Carter, a Nevada newcomer who used his famous father to gain media attention, attributed the results to "people just not knowing who I was."

"I wasn't able to get the message out," he said.

The 59-year-old first-time candidate, went into Election Day facing a double-digit deficit in most polls.

Ensign raised more than $4 million more than Carter, who moved to the state just four years ago. The 48-year-old former veterinarian ran ads painting Carter as a carpetbagger and campaigned with the president in rural northeastern Nevada last week.

Heller also was at the president's side. The former state assemblyman and avid race car driver from Carson City found himself in a surprisingly tight race for a House seat that has been held by a Republican since it was created in 1981. Republican incumbent Jim Gibbons, who won the gubernatorial election, received 67 percent of the vote two years ago.

But Democrats fielded a competitive candidate. Derby, 66, is a rancher's daughter who walked a moderate line in the conservative district. Derby played up her rural roots and railed against "career politicians," but she needed Republicans to either stay home or cross party lines.

"We always knew it was a mountain to climb. But here's the thing, it was a close race and I think that we made a statement in itself, that Dean's not going back to Washington with a mandate," Derby said.

In Nevada's 3rd Congressional District, Hafen also hoped to capitalize on voters' disaffection. She tried to tie Porter to both the Jack Abramoff and Rep. Mark Foley scandals. The 30-year-old first-time candidate described Porter as a Bush "yes man" and pounded him on votes for Medicare reform and school loans cuts, and against a Democratic proposal to give troops a bonus.

She repeated her critique Tuesday night.

"No longer will Porter and his colleagues rubber stamp (the president's policies). I end this campaign with my head held high," Hafen said.

Porter, 51, has held the seat since it was created in 2002 to represent Las Vegas' sprawling suburbs. Bush won the district with 50 percent to Democrat John Kerry's 49 percent in 2004.

Hafen, a Mormon, took moderate stands on social issues and tax policies, leaving immigration and the Iraq war as defining issues. Porter ads portrayed Hafen as "political opportunist."

Nevada's 1st Congressional District is locked safely in the Democratic stronghold of Las Vegas. Berkley, 55, has held the seat since 1999. Her Republican opponent, Wegner, is a 50-year-old bail bondsman and disabled war veteran.

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