LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dressed in patriotic blue and white, Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley gathered a handful of veterans at a memorial this week in Las Vegas and promised to highlight their cause in Washington, D.C., and across Nevada.
But her broad speech criticizing the GOP indicated there was more on her mind than military issues.
"We're focused in Washington more on ending Medicare and turning it over to private insurance companies," Berkley said. "Rather than insuring that no veteran should ever have to live on the streets, Washington is busy defending oil companies and continuing to give them their taxpayer subsidies."
Translation: Sen. Dean Heller is bad for Nevada.
With the Senate race more than six months away, Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman eager for a promotion, has sought to define her Republican rival at every turn, holding regular press conferences to slam his record and question his values, while at the same time refusing to answers questions about a federal ethics investigation related to her husband's health care business. She has especially targeted Heller for his votes supporting the Republican overhaul of Medicare and tax subsidies for big oil companies.
Democratic strategists argue a strong offense is Berkley's best hope of convincing voters that Heller is bad news. Nevada Democrats pulled a similar move in 2010, when supporters of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pummeled Republican Sharron Angle early on in an onslaught of ads that portrayed her as an extreme, right-wing politician.
"There's nothing wrong with going on the offense," said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic consultant who has advised Berkley. "It's never too early to attack Heller. And it's important to delineate those differences."
But Berkley's tactic is far from foolproof and there are budding signs that her near-constant attacks on Heller could do more harm than good. Her refusal to talk about the ethics investigation has earned her waves of negative press since September 2011. And a recent effort to link Heller to Rush Limbaugh, after the radio personality badmouthed a law student advocating for greater health care access, backfired after some Nevada pundits accused Berkley of threatening free speech.
Nevada GOP acting Chairman James Smack said Democrats will be unsuccessful if they try to convince voters that Heller is the new Angle, whose frequent gaffes got her into trouble with her own party.
"The Berkley campaign is spinning almost a little out of control to find something that will stick, and nothing is sticking," said Smack. "There aren't too many of Dean's words that they can use against him, unlike Sharron."
Heller has said on the campaign trail that he wants to focus on issues, not attacks. True to form, he stayed silent when the House Ethics Committee announced last month that it was reviewing allegations that reportedly revolve around whether Berkley sponsored legislation or influenced federal regulators to help her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, who administers kidney care at University Medical Center in Las Vegas.
Heller's campaign staff also seems content to stand by and watch as Berkley fires verbal bombs.
"When your opponent is burning her own house down, it might just be smarter to pull up a lawn chair and watch the spectacle than it is to go look for another match," said Mike Slanker, Heller's campaign strategist.
Heller was on his third term in the House when he was appointed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval to the Senate last year. Republican Sen. John Ensign created the opening when he resigned amid a sex scandal.
It's true that Heller's and Berkley's policy positions offer plenty of meat for voters eager to distinguish them. In most cases, Berkley has carried the Democratic platform on health care, federal spending and social issues, while Heller has done the same for the GOP.
There are numerous examples. She defended the federal health care law, while he vowed to repeal it or weaken it by allowing employers to opt out of a provision that would provide free contraception to women. He supported a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare by subsidizing private insurance plans for seniors, and she didn't. She called on Heller to sign a pledge against political advertisements purchased by anyone outside the campaigns. He declined.
Berkley has also attempted to distance herself from Heller by targeting specific voter groups, such as seniors, Hispanics, small business owners and veterans, to convince them that she, not Heller, is on their side.
"Everything that she has said she has done, she's done — but much, much more than that," said Dick Collins, a Las Vegas veteran who joined her at the press conference at the veterans memorial at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas earlier this week.
Berkley's campaign said the strategy has been successful because it's allowed her to drown out Heller's much less aggressive media campaign.
For instance, Berkley's campaign launched its initiative to get Limbaugh fired on the week that Senate Democrats blocked a Republican bid to speed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline linking Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The controversial vote saw 11 Democrats side with Republicans, including Heller, but Berkley's Limbaugh rant received more attention in Nevada.
"They have basically launched attacks since the day they announced," said Slanker, of the Heller campaign. "Just because they screech from the rooftops every day does not mean anyone is listening to them."