LAS VEGAS (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid isn't on the ballot this year, but he's very much in the game.
With Republicans clamoring to take away his majority, Reid is helping Democratic Senate candidates across the nation raise money and demonize their opponents. Nowhere is his hand more visible than in his home state, where Democrats can capture a seat from Republicans.
Reid, who had an arduous race of his own in Nevada two years ago, has loaned his former campaign staff to Rep. Shelley Berkley, Las Vegas' representative in the House for the past 14 years.
Berkley is Reid's hope for taking Nevada's other Senate seat away from Republican Dean Heller, who was appointed to it a year ago when GOP Sen. John Ensign resigned in anticipation of a highly critical Ethics Committee report about his affair with an aide.
"It's reasonable to make the argument that I have two opponents, yes: Shelley Berkley and Harry Reid," said Heller.
Republicans need to pick up a net four seats to take over the Senate and Reid's job as majority leader. Key to that is holding onto the seats the GOP already has, and Heller's is among the most vulnerable.
The race won't be easy for either Berkley or Heller, both longtime politicians facing questions from angry voters fed up with a devastated housing market and stagnant economy. Nevada's unemployment rate of 11.6 percent is the highest of any state.
Heller, who represented Nevada's conservative northern half in the House for three terms, needs to woo swing voters in the urban centers of Las Vegas and Reno. Berkley is facing her first competitive race in more than a decade as she also fights off ethics allegations that she used her office to advance her husband's medical career. The two candidates are nearly matched in campaign dollars; each has more than $4 million in cash on hand.
It's unclear whether Reid's string-pulling will help or hinder Berkley. Nevada is divided between Republican and Democratic voters, leaving independents to decide elections with often unpredictable results.
Democrats have a stronger party organization in the state, but Reid is surprisingly unpopular in view of the clout he wields. Conservatives blame him for the struggling economy and oversized federal deficits and are incensed about him butting in on this year's Senate contest. Sensing opportunity, Heller has used Reid's attacks in fundraising emails.
"Every time Harry Reid opens his mouth he just annoys me. I don't believe he is honest," said Barbara Teixeira, 71, a former Democrat and volunteer in Heller's campaign against Berkley. "Harry Reid doesn't care about her at all. All Harry Reid cares about is keeping the Senate majority."
Reid's support also won't help Berkley with voters who claim she hasn't done enough to challenge other Democrats in Washington.
"Shelley Berkley is one of those people who follow the crowd," said Robert Rickly, 49, a Republican business owner in Las Vegas who supports Heller. "She just kind of votes along party lines."
But Berkley may benefit from Reid's ability to force Republicans into unpopular votes on some issues while protecting Democrats from them on others. Berkley is following the game plan.
She has held more than a dozen news conferences in recent months to portray Heller as anti-women, anti-veteran, anti-small business and anti-Hispanic. She is running an aggressive ad campaign with TV spots and mailers circulated across the state.
Heller has largely refused to talk about Berkley. His first TV spot aired Sunday and is broad in its approach. It features Heller criticizing Congress for not passing an annual budget. "They do a lot of talking, but they haven't done their job in over three years," Heller states. "It's time Washington delivered on something."
Heller's campaign has argued that it doesn't need to run defense or offense while Berkley is doing both.
Berkley is being investigated by the House ethics committee for allegations made by the Nevada GOP that she tried to influence federal reimbursement rates for dialysis providers and lobbied to save a kidney transplant program in Las Vegas administrated by her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner. Heller also had backed the program.
"If that kidney transplant center was closed, patients would have had to travel hundreds of miles out of state in order to get their care," Berkley said. "That would have been unacceptable to me."
The ethics committee is to decide on or before July 9 whether to conduct a full investigation. But American Crossroads, a group formed by prominent Republican strategist Karl Rove, is already airing TV ads in the state accusing Berkley of "using her office to enrich her family." Berkley calls the ads "relentless smears."
The race's outcome could depend on how Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama perform in Nevada. Obama won the state in 2008, but Republican George W. Bush carried the state in 2004. Five months from the election, Nevada is now viewed as a toss-up in the presidential race.
Before he went to Washington, Heller was a popular secretary of state known for his moderate views. He nearly lost his first House bid in 2006 against tea-party favorite Sharron Angle, who portrayed him as weak on conservative issues.
Since his appointment to the Senate, he's held frequent campaign appearances across the Las Vegas Valley, where the majority of citizens live. Some of his outreach efforts have foundered. Last year he canceled a meeting with the Latin Chamber of Commerce at the last minute, then alienated Nevada' large Latino constituency by saying he didn't support the DREAM Act to provide a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children.
Heller recently announced a group of Hispanic Republican supporters and has been working to restore his image within the community. He's also targeted veterans and business groups.
"No doubt I have work to do in southern Nevada," Heller said.
Berkley said she isn't shying away from Obama or Reid's help. She called Obama's campaign "an asset" and suggested she wasn't worried about turning off voters by teaming up with Reid. "This is a race between me and Dean, and Dean may try to pretend it's a race between him and somebody else. It's not," she said.
Berkley is better known than Heller in the Las Vegas Valley. Voters praise her constituency outreach efforts. "Shelley is always there for the people," said Carolen Tabor, 70, a Las Vegas retiree. "I can see her at Costco and she will hug me."
Robin Joyce, a Republican pastor in Las Vegas, said he is leaning toward Heller. Still, he praised Berkley for her work in the community, support for Israel and efforts to help small businesses.
"She is just a good lady," Joyce said. "She has always stood for Nevada issues."