LAS VEGAS -- Dr. Joe Heck projects a quiet, earnest confidence about his chances in his very close election battle against freshman Congressional Democrat Rep. Dina Titus. “We’re going to win this race, but will be a very hard-fought victory,” Heck tells me. “Las Vegas has become famous for Mixed Martial Arts and UFC fighting, and this race is a cage match.” Nevada’s Third Congressional District is the most populous in the nation and will help shape not only the balance of power in the US House of Representatives, but also the outcome of the state’s marquee 2010 Senate race. If this royal rumble in the desert hinges a central theme, Heck argues, it should be what he calls the principle of “action vs. theory.” It’s a compelling piece of framing because through Heck’s preferred prism, the campaign is no contest.
On one end of the spectrum, voters encounter Congresswoman Dina Titus. Titus served in the Nevada State Senate for two decades, ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 2006, and rode the winds of change to her US House seat in 2008—despite underperforming Barack Obama in the district by seven points. She’s also a longtime political science professor at UNLV. At the other end is Joe Heck, an emergency room doctor, a 20-year Army Reservist who’s served three tours of duty and currently holds the rank of Colonel, and the owner of a homeland security consulting firm.
“My opponent lectures college students about political theory. I understand how things really work,” Heck says. “Take healthcare, for example. Four out of ten people I care for in the ER are uninsured. I know what works and what doesn’t in our healthcare system because I live it.” On the issue of Obamacare, Heck sides with the 56 percent of district voters who favor repealing the new legislation. “We’ve got to repeal, repair, and replace it,” Heck says, before reciting a thorough laundry list of flaws buried within the new law. “I actually read the bill,” he remarks with a wry smile – a clear slap at Titus, who voted in favor of the law in March.
One of the unusual dynamics of this race is Heck’s refusal to give up working full time while campaigning. Throughout his primary race and most of the general election, Heck has maintained a daily 5:30 am conference call with fellow Army Reservists, and has continued his duties both as a physician and a consultant. He says his decision was borne more of necessity than personal preference. “The main reason I’ve kept working is pretty simple. I need to work,” he says. “I don’t want my home to go into foreclosure. I have bills to pay, and I have people counting on me to fulfill my obligations.” Only in October has Heck “significantly ramped down” his daily routine to focus on the race.
Like virtually every Republican Congressional candidate in America, Heck is hammering away on a central campaign theme of job creation. “People are sick of band-aids for this economy. People want the cure,” he says. Titus’ re-election effort, by contrast, has frequently devolved into leveling personal and inaccurate attacks against Heck. “Her ads have been debunked by the southern Nevada media, as well as groups like FactCheck.org. She’s running false attacks, and people are calling her on it,” he says. “Dina Titus typifies a ‘say-and-do-anything’ Democrat in this cycle,” adds Heck’s Communications Director, Mari Nakashima.
Nakashima also points to Titus’ flouting of agreed-upon rules at a recent debate as an illustration of the incumbent’s arrogance and desperation. “At first, the Titus campaign demanded that neither candidate be allowed to bring anything on stage at the debate. Then they changed their minds and we agreed Joe and Dina could each have a single note card with them,” she explains. “When the debate occurred [last Thursday], Dina walked out carrying an entire three-ring binder.” According to the Las Vegas Sun, Titus referenced her notes throughout the debate, and even appeared to read her entire closing statement from a script. The Titus campaign has dismissed allegations of cheating as “distractions” from a “spirited discussion of the issues.”
With the election less than two weeks away, Heck and Titus are in a statistical dead heat. The latest poll from Democratic Operative Mark Penn’s firm gives Heck a slim three-point edge. Heck also enjoys a substantial, 2-to-1 cash on hand advantage over his opponent, and outpaced her in Q3 fundraising. With the Angle-Reid race sucking up most of the political oxygen in the Las Vegas media market and the state, Heck denies that his electoral fate is tied to Sharron Angle’s—although he openly acknowledges he was “very happy for Sharron” when she won the lone debate against the Senate Majority Leader. “Ultimately, we’re responsible for how we perform. Nevadans aren’t straight ticket voters. We feel confident we’re winning Independents this year, regardless of who else is on the ballot,” he says.