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Election Preview: Democrats face off in 2nd Congressional District primary in longshot bid to oust Amodei

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Election 2020Elections
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Democrats competing in the Congressional District 2 primary have poured tens of thousands of dollars into the race in the hopes of pulling off a historic first: winning a Northern Nevada seat no Democrat has ever won. 

The three leading candidates — Clint Koble, Patricia Ackerman and Ed Cohen — have avoided openly criticizing each other, instead training their primary messaging on incumbent Republican Mark Amodei and on President Donald Trump. 

But whoever emerges from the primary will still face a steep, uphill climb in a general election; Amodei entered June with more than $231,000 in cash on hand — nearly 70 times as much money as his nearest Democrat opponent. Alongside a 10-point Republican voter registration edge and little support from the national party or outside groups, a Democratic upset remains a fringe prospect in November. 

As of June 1, the Cook Political Report, which analyzes electoral partisan advantages and rates congressional races across the country, rated District 2 as “solid Republican,” with a partisan lean of 7 percentage points. 

THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY

Even with a long history of Democrats trying — and failing — to flip the largely rural District 2 away from Republicans, a field of seven Democrats emerged in the 2020 primary, including four candidates who have actively campaigned and fundraised over the last year.

First to enter the race was Clint Koble, a former director of the USDA’s Nevada Farm Services Agency and the Democratic nominee who lost to Mark Amodei in 2018. 

That year, where Democrats elsewhere in the state saw broad success up and down the ballot, the blue wave fell far short of denting Amodei’s firewall in District 2. Amodei was re-elected to his seat by more than 16 percentage points, a margin exceeded only by incumbent Democrat Dina Titus in Las Vegas’ deep-blue District 1.  

In 2020, Koble has sought to mount a resurgent bid that would build off his 2018 effort. He has campaigned on staple Democratic issues — health care, government corruption and equality — in addition to more specific pushes for public lands protections and the expansion of rural broadband.

Though he has been endorsed by the powerful Culinary Union and a pair of veteran ex-Democratic officials in former Sen. Richard Bryan and former Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, Koble has seen his fundraising fall behind his competitors in the final few months of the campaign. 

Even after reportedly raising more than $14,000 ahead of the June 9 primary, Koble’s campaign had just $1,374 in cash on hand as of May 28 — the least of any actively-campaigning Democrat in the district. 

Patricia Ackerman, a former small business owner and one-time candidate for the Assembly, entered the race next in mid-November. In the time since, her campaign has centered on a broadly progressive platform calling for, among other things, a “fight back against government corruption” and adopting Medicare for All. 

She has also roughly matched Koble in the fundraising race, even exceeding his receipts in the first quarter after raising more than $27,000 and adding another $12,000 in loans. Still, she too has burned through campaign cash reserves, and entered the final weeks of the race with just over $8,100 in cash on hand. 

It’s the largest war chest among the actively campaigning Democrats in the 2nd District, but it is a far cry from the campaign coffers of other competitive challengers in District 3 or District 4, where multiple Republican candidates have more than $100,000 in cash on hand. 

Ed Cohen, communications director for a Reno-based judicial education nonprofit and a one-time journalist, was a last-minute entry to the field, launching his bid on March 9. 

Since then, he has used a combination of candidate loans and small-dollar fundraising to match the efforts of Koble and Ackerman, frequently campaigning on his credentials as a former journalist and touting that “Trump's worst nightmare is having a journalist in Congress asking the tough questions.”

That journalistic background includes seven years as a newspaper reporter on the East Coast, including a stint at a Gannett-owned newspaper in Delaware. Cohen later left newspapers to spend more than a decade in academic magazine writing, including 10 years at Notre Dame Magazine, before eventually moving to Reno. 

Cohen led Democratic fundraisers in the first quarter of the year, and later reported raising more than $17,000 in the pre-primary period between March and the end of May, edging out fundraising hauls from either Koble or Ackerman. Still, Cohen has vastly outspent his fundraising in the final weeks of the campaign, spending more than $47,000 and leaving just $2,200 in the bank. 

Rick Shepard, a business owner and self-identified progressive candidate, was another late entry into the race. 

Running in part on a platform of single-payer health care and reformed systems for education and federal taxes, Shepard has lagged behind the other three candidates in the fundraising race. For the pre-primary period, Shepard reported banking $1,125, but spending nearly $11,000 and leaving his campaign with just over $2,000 for the final weeks of the race. 

Steve Schiffman, a former lawyer and journalist who also entered the race just before the filing deadline, holds the technical distinction of having the most cash-on-hand among Democrats in the district after he made a $150,000 loan to his campaign at the end of March. 

But Schiffman has otherwise raised no additional money, and his lone financial filing shows a single $500 expense on a set of radio and television ads from May 10. Unlike his rivals, Schiffman has spent nothing on online advertisements, according to Facebook’s Ad Archive. 

With no polling and little outside attention on the race, the quarterly financial reports have become a de facto benchmark among the leading three campaigns, and each has sought to use those reports as proof-positive that his or her campaign remains in a position to oust Amodei. 

Ackerman, for instance, briefly claimed victory as the sole leader in the money race in April after it became clear that she had outraised Koble by roughly $15,000. But before the day was over, the Ackerman campaign retreated, after a filing from Cohen showed his campaign had raised about $11,000 more than she had. 

Also running in the Democratic primary are Reynaldo Hernandez and Ian Luetkehans, though neither reported raising more than $500 ahead of last week’s pre-primary congressional filing deadline

ABOUT DISTRICT 2

District 2 is among the largest congressional districts by area in the country, roughly encompassing the upper third of the state and fully 11 of Nevada’s 17 counties. 

With the single-largest concentration of rural and suburban Republican voters in the state, the District has remained a deep-red Republican stronghold since its creation 1982. Today, 41 percent of registered voters there are Republicans, 31 percent are Democrats and 20 percent are nonpartisans, making it the only congressional district in the state with a Republican registration advantage. 

First represented for 14 years by Republican Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, the seat would come to be represented by both eventual Gov. Jim Gibbons and eventual Sen. Dean Heller before Amodei — who at the time had just left a seat in the Nevada Senate — won a special election to succeed Heller in 2011. 

Since then, Amodei has won four successive re-election bids with a greater than 15 percent margin of victory, including three occasions — 2012, 2014 and 2016 — that were won with more than 20 percentage points between himself and his Democratic rivals. 

These victories have come largely without the big-dollar fundraising typical of the state’s more competitive swing districts. Amodei reported more than $231,000 in cash on hand through the pre-primary reporting period last month — a figure that dwarfs his Democratic rivals but falls far short of the millions raised by Democratic incumbents Susie Lee and Steven Horsford in District 3 and 4, respectively. 

Still, that money has also given Amodei the latitude to outspend any possible challengers by orders of magnitude. As of May 28, Amodei reported spending nearly $78,000 — roughly $10,000 more than his top four Democratic rivals raised in the same time period combined. 

For more on the 2020 primary elections, including maps, fundraising roundups, race breakdowns and more, visit our 2020 Elections page.

Correction, 6/3/2020 at 4:00 p.m. - An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Ackerman as a 2018 candidate for state Senate. She was, in fact, a candidate for the Assembly.

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