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The short, now-unhappy political career of Ruben Kihuen

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

Ruben Kihuen’s political career is dead.

The only mystery is the timing of his burial and whether Democrats can save the seat.

Beyond the cringe-worthy depredations by Kihuen described in the BuzzFeed story, and the awful situation described by a young woman, emblematic of so many of these stories we are hearing since Harvey Weinstein’s accusers broke the silence, this is now also about politics. National and local Democratic strategists are hamstrung over what to do, wanting Kihuen out of the picture but fretting they could lose the seat in a low-turnout special election. The seat is rated a lean Democratic seat by most analysts – Democrats have a double-digit registration edge, but Kihuen only won by 4 points and Hillary Clinton by only 5.

(The Democrats can’t even guarantee who their nominee would be because that person is chosen by a state central committee made up of a combination of fierce partisans and total loons.)

Kihuen cannot survive this. He will be forced to resign – the most likely outcome – or he will decide not to run for re-election or he will file and lose.

I’m told he is in denial and denying everything. But that, too, will pass.

Reality will intrude, and with his colleagues and House leadership saying he needs to go, an ethics probe looming if he does not and the possibility of other women coming forward, he is a dead man walking.

This denouement is both heartbreaking and, perhaps, inevitable.

Kihuen, propelled by his good looks and natural charm, was the first DREAMer to be elected to Congress, and now he may crush the dreams of so many who have looked up to him. Kihuen is a symbol of another dream, too, the American one, where anyone can accomplish anything, where the Mexican-born son of a housekeeper can become a congressman.

His fall is tragic. But it also could have been foretold.

Kihuen, who began as a Harry Reid protégé a decade and a half ago, has always been preternaturally ambitious but has never matched that drive to succeed with a concomitant work ethic or substantive accomplishments. He was a lackluster state legislator and woeful fundraiser.

He has the practiced earnestness of so many politicians, but you never felt as if he could answer much past, “Hey, how are you?” He did nothing of note in Carson City, but wanted to run for Congress for years. His natural skills and telegenic charisma caught the eye of Team Reid and the Culinary union, where his mother has been a member. Prince Harry pushed him into the 2012 race but then yanked him out when Dina Titus refused to yield and Kihuen declined to work hard.

When he finally had another chance last year, Kihuen didn’t get elected; the Culinary Union elected him. The union’s ground game brought him out of a primary field and to election.

Most Democratic insiders did not think he was an accident waiting to happen. But they were wary of his reputation for frivolousness – his propensity for posting shirtless pictures on social media, his reputation as a flirtatious player.

The combination has now proved lethal. And that BuzzFeed story indicates that he may have bridged the gap between flirty and predatory, which is partly why House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Ben Lujan, Rep. Jacky Rosen and others have called for him to resign.

It was Titus’ statement, though, that struck me as the most telling, even though it stopped just short of calling for his resignation: “Many believed Ruben had great potential, but unfortunately his personal behavior has jeopardized his political career...Ruben needs to step up and do what's right for the people of Nevada."

Many = Reid.

Personal behavior = I believe Samantha.

Do what’s right = bye, bye Ruben.

You can hear the Titus sneering drawl; I know you can.

All schadenfreude aside, the story told by Samantha, corroborated by texts at the time to a friend, is of a boss creepily hitting on a subordinate, even after she told him she wasn’t interested and had a boyfriend. This was a young woman involved in a major race, trying to slough it off until she could no more and quit.

It’s a story repeated over and over by women trapped on the wrong end of a power dynamic by men whose arrogant sense of entitlement leads them to despicable acts such as the one Samantha described. It seems highly unlikely she fabricated the story and much more likely it is not the only one involving Kihuen.

So what are the Democrats to do?

This is all so fresh – the story broke Friday – that you can’t expect anyone to be rational, especially Kihuen, his enablers and his fans. No solution is good in a district they lost in 2014 in a huge upset, but I can tell you that phones are lit up with calls and texts, and vultures are circling.

Here’s what is happening:

In the unlikely event that Kihuen tries to run again, he will get a primary and his money will dry up. When the party leader and DCCC head tell you to resign, that’s a sign. He will be under a House investigation, too. He’ll lose.

Kihuen also is moribund because Pelosi, after botching the John Conyers scandal by calling him an “icon” and questioning the women a few days before she called for his head, had no margin for error on this one. That’s why she called for Kihuen to resign so quickly. Ruben Who? Easier, too, when they are not iconic, eh, Madame Leader?

The current atmospherics also doom Kihuen. Complete tolerance decades ago for this kind of behavior has zoomed to zero tolerance. So he gets no benefit of the doubt, and the guillotine is quickly rolled out.

One more factor: People forget that Kihuen already had a problematic issue that prevented him from being seriously considered as a candidate this cycle against Sen. Dean Heller. His close friend and his campaign confidant are ensnared in an FBI probe and, fair or not, the issue is a polling nightmare for him and will be used in ads. He was a slight favorite for re-election without the BuzzFeed story; now he’s a certain loser.

(Imagine this scenario: Kihuen puts his head down, files for re-election and THEN other women come forward. I assure you that Democratic leaders have thought this could occur.)

If Kihuen decides to simply announce he won’t run again -- and he’s not even there yet -- national Democrats will do everything in their power to get him to reconsider. He will become a painful and daily reminder for them as the issue of sexual harassment will not go away anytime soon. He will be a real liability.

If the congressman resigns, Nevada law says the governor must call a special election within six months. With the central committees choosing the nominees, anything could happen – remember this is how Mark Amodei, a former GOP chairman, defeated others in the bid to take Sen. Dean Heller’s place in the House six years ago.

Democrats who believe Kihuen can’t win want him to stay and say he won’t run because they fear a low-turnout special election could flip the seat to the GOP. They would like to be able to wait until the regular June primary to choose the nominee, rather than have a special election beforehand, especially with two possible state Senate recalls looming early next year.

The Republicans, already salivating over those recalls to take back the state Senate, are now drooling over taking a seat that is barely competitive. Their calls for Kihuen to resign drip with hypocrisy -- and they are better off if he stays!

Two examples of Republicans standing among shards in their glass houses: Heller, who voted for Donald Trump after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct, and GOP Chairman Michael McDonald, whose groping for ethics has been fruitless.

Sexual harassment and hypocrisy have something in common: They have no political party.

Smart folks in both parties probably believe that the former representatives – Democrat Steven Horsford and Republican Cresent Hardy – are the natural nominees for a special, if they want to run and if the central committees agree. Both are thinking about it, I am told.

The biggest loser in this, ironically, could be Republican Las Vegas Councilman Stavros Anthony, who might be closed out if Hardy runs and wins a special election. (My favorite idea is for Danny Tarkanian, who lost to Horsford, to get into the race. Heller of a solution, no?)

On the Democratic side, if Horsford, now thriving in the private sector, passes, the natural choice is state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who helped elect Kihuen and has a great profile for that district. She also has a job and is in law school, too, so that may be problematic. Other names will be floated if Horsford and Cancela pass, including Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who would solve the Democrats’ gubernatorial primary problem if she could be persuaded (doubtful) to move into the congressional race.

All of this is café or bar conversation until the dust settles and Kihuen decides what to do. He may be resistant to reality now, but that can’t last.

At some point, perhaps, Prince Harry, who still holds many levers and sway over Kihuen, may make a call to his protégé and say what Reid’s predecessor, Paul Laxalt, once said to then-Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos: Cut and cut cleanly.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. On Twitter: @ralstonreports


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