What to watch in the 2020 primary election: Congressional District 3
As the presidential caucus has drifted into the past and with no statewide offices up for grabs in 2020, a pair of hotly contested congressional primaries on June 9 may draw battle lines for the coming push by the major parties to take or keep control of the House in November.
One of them is District 3, where Democrats have maintained control since 2016. But a narrow voter registration advantage of just 3 percentage points for Democrats and swingy voters year-to-year have made the district one of two dozen nationwide that Republicans hope to flip in their attempt to regain control of the House.
Incumbent Susie Lee enters 2020 without an intraparty primary fight. As a result, Lee has spent the last two years amassing an enormous campaign warchest of more than $2 million — roughly twice the amount on hand for all her Republican challengers combined. As of now, the Cook Political Report rates the race as “Lean Democratic.”
The Republican Primary
Though District 3 seat is viewed as a potential 2020 pickup opportunity by the national Republican Party, just three major candidates — including just one with prior elected experience — have jumped into the race.
As much as all three have sought to cast Lee as a liberal stooge of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other “radical Democrats,” so, too, have they raced to stake a claim as the most conservative of the lot. In many ways, the race to be the Republican to take on Lee has been defined by the candidates’ push to establish their own conservative bonafides and cast off rivals as “liberals” or “RINOs” — shorthand for Republican in name only.
First to enter the race was Dan Schwartz, a one-term state treasurer who later mounted a failed gubernatorial bid in 2018 against the eventual Republican nominee Adam Laxalt.
Schwartz has frequently led the money race among Republicans in District 3 — ending the first quarter with more than $424,000 in cash on hand — though that lead has come largely through the sheer force of self-financing. Through the first quarter of 2020, Schwartz loaned his campaign nearly $530,000, far more than any of the candidates.
On the trail, Schwartz has cast himself as a “pro-Trump constitutional conservative” and leaned on his credentials in the finance world and on his stint in Carson City. Schwartz has often made reference to his time as treasurer in campaign advertising, including raising his opposition to the state’s 2015 tax on businesses grossing more than $4 million annually and touting his efforts to raise red flags on a deal between the state and fledgling carmaker Faraday Future in 2016 — a deal that eventually fell apart.
Schwartz long avoided tangling with his fellow primary opponents, instead taking to social media to tout his time as treasurer and endorsements from perennial Republican congressional candidate Danny Tarkanian and his wife, former state GOP Chair Amy, and former Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury.
That changed, however, with a recent slate of campaign attacks targeting his longest-running opponent in the race: Dan Rodimer.
Rodimer, an ex-wrestler turned businessman and political commentator, sought early on to outflank Schwartz from the right. Branding himself as “Big Dan Rodimer,” the one-time legislative candidate has leaned heavily on the visual trappings of his wrestling past, posing with American-flag-themed title belts and emblazoning a comic-book-esque silhouette of himself on his campaign signs, mailers and website.
In the fundraising race, Rodimer has so far kept pace with Schwartz, and with far less of his personal money spent on campaign loans. Rodimer ended the first quarter with $323,000 in cash on hand, of which $165,000 came from candidate loans.
On the issues, Rodimer has most recently placed safely reopening the economy among his top priorities, though his pre-pandemic campaign largely centered on key portions of the Republican platform, including 2nd Amendment rights, border security and an opposition to abortion.
He has also appeared at several Reopen Nevada rallies as he sought to provide his own “8-step plan” to reopen the state’s economy, in large part by handing authority to local leaders and local businesses.
And, as the primary has neared, Rodimer picked up a handful of his own endorsements in the form of nods from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and ex-Attorney General and former Schwartz opponent Adam Laxalt.
On the campaign trail and in a bevy of campaign advertising, the Fox News-regular has cast his campaign as “the only campaign that can beat Susie Lee,” frequently targeting Schwartz as “anti-Trump” and a “liberal.”
Amid those attacks, Schwartz struck back last month by resurfacing an incident in which Rodimer was arrested following an assault inside a Florida Waffle House in 2010. Charges against Rodimer were eventually dropped following his completion of an anger management course, and as such the incident did not create a criminal record.
Schwartz then went a step further in his attacks, accusing Rodimer of yet more legal troubles, including an additional assault, forgery and unpaid debts.
Schwartz’s campaign has posted documents related to those incidents online, including a police report from Collier County, Florida from May 14, 2011 that details an incident where Rodimer, then 33 years old, allegedly punched a classmate from the Ave Maria Law School outside a local nightclub.
A warrant for misdemeanor battery was issued on May 26, 2011, and county records show Rodimer was arrested by Florida police in August of that year. But court records suggest the arrest stemmed solely from the 2010 incident at the Waffle House and do not reference the alleged battery at the nightclub several months later.
Schwartz’s campaign also accuses Rodimer of “fraud and forgery,” claims that appear to stem from a 2010 lawsuit filed against Rodimer and his then-business partner, Seth Williams, by fellow wrestler and ex-business partner Randy Orton.
According to court documents, Orton had entered into business with Williams and Rodimer with plans to develop real estate in Texas. In his suit, Orton claims that Williams admitted to forging his signature in order to take out a $1.4 million loan from Texas-based Prosperity Bank as they looked to finance construction of several townhomes.
Though that loan was approved in 2008, Orton reported discovering the alleged fraud in 2009, at which point he ended his business relationship with Williams, Rodimer and Legend LLC. Court documents show the company eventually defaulted on the loan in 2010, kicking off foreclosure proceedings and prompting Orton to sue to avoid involvement.
Finally, Schwartz alleged that Rodimer had avoided payment on a $350,000 judgment awarded by a Texas Court to First National Bank, eventually resulting in a tax lien. Court documents confirmed the judgment was issued on June 24, 2011. No additional documents on the matter nor any record of payments or other liens were available through the Harris County, Texas courts.
In an initial statement sent to The Nevada Independent, Rodimer campaign manager Ed Gonzalez called the charges “ridiculous,” adding in part that “the fact remains that Dan Rodimer has one arrest in his life, with no convictions and no criminal record.”
The campaign did not immediately respond, however, when asked for additional details on the nature of the May 2011 battery incident and payment on the $350,000 judgment.
In the waning days before candidate filing closed, another conservative challenger appeared in the race in the form of Mindy Robinson, an actress and online political commentator with a devout following across social media that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Throwing her hat in the ring just as the pandemic began to emerge as a national crisis in early March, Robinson reported raising little before the first-quarter filing deadline — just over $3,000.
But that number belies Robinson’s online efforts, where she has spent much of her campaign’s energy on social channels seeking to raise her profile as a candidate and poke at the credentials of her rivals and, in particular, Rodimer.
In tweets and Facebook posts that often garner hundreds of likes and retweets, Robinson has called her opponents “crooked” RINOs, frequently taunted Rodimer for refusing to debate her, and mocked Rodimer for taking a “photoshoot with a shotgun” while she was “actively defending the 2nd Amendment for years.”
In these ways and more, Robinson has emerged as a candidate of-and-by the post-2016 conservative internet, a place in large part defined by the ideological crusade of sites from Breitbart to Infowars. She’s long run the conservative blog “Red White and ‘F’ You” where her tagline is that “my politics are conservative … the way I talk isn’t!” and where articles frequently take aim at social media giants for censorship and at “leftist” Democrats for culture-war-driven conspiracies.
In recent weeks, Robinson’s posts to that website have taken aim against Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s actions during the coronavirus pandemic and have accused Democrats of voter fraud amid the switch to mail-in voting.
Robinson has railed against alleged voter fraud in her online writings and has made the implementation of voter ID policies a core part of her campaign pitch.
Though claims of rampant voter fraud have long been featured in GOP campaign platforms, evidence of such fraud is rare. A database maintained by the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation lists more than 1,200 verifiable cases of fraud dating back to 1982, of which six took place in Nevada between 2011 and 2017.
Robinson has received the endorsement of convicted Trump confidant and famed political “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, who said in a video posted to her campaign website that, though he normally wouldn’t endorse a candidate, he would make an exception for Robinson as a “solid, dependable conservative.”
But, with no publicly available polling among Nevada’s congressional races, Robinson’s ultimate effect on what had for months been a two-horse race will remain unknown until the final ballots are counted post-election day.
About District 3
Encompassing much of the southern half of Clark County and a handful of Las Vegas’ wealthiest suburbs, District 3 was first carved out in 2001 as part of a reapportionment process that handed the Silver State its third seat in the House.
Much of the district’s history has been dominated by Republicans, with just a single two-year cycle — a one-term stint from current District 1 Rep. Dina Titus in 2008 — interrupting 12 years of Republican control between 2002 and 2016.
The electoral calculus began to shift in 2016, when political newcomer Jacky Rosen narrowly defeated Tarkanian and flipped District 3 for the first time in six years — even as the district’s voters narrowly broke toward Donald Trump.
That Democratic advantage widened in 2018, when a nationwide “blue wave” carried Rosen to the Senate and pushed newcomer Lee to a 7.8 percentage point victory over Tarkanian, who had once again launched a bid win District 3 after bowing out of a primary bid against then-Sen. Dean Heller.
Now in Congress, Lee has run her re-election bid unopposed. With little need to spend money or actively campaign, the congresswoman has built a massive campaign war chest exceeding $2 million — far more than any single candidate in any Nevada congressional race and roughly double the cash-on-hand for all her Republican challengers combined.
Still, national Republicans believe they have an opening in District 3. The Democratic voter registration advantage is narrow — 36.7 percent of voters there are registered as Democrats, with 33.8 percent as Republican and 23.6 percent as non-partisan — and any small push among fence-sitting Republicans or non-partisans could decide a narrow race.
President Trump won the district by 1 percentage point in 2016 and strong historical turnout in years excluding 2018 have placed the district firmly on the RNC’s watchlist. Several Republican-linked PACs have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to attack Lee over the airwaves hoping to pressure her during the impeachment process.
Those attacks have sought to paint Lee as an unabashed liberal, tying her both to Democratic congressional leaders such as Pelosi and to the party’s vocal liberal wing, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Whether those attacks will stick to Lee — who has spent her first years in Congress among the bipartisan Problem-Solvers Caucus and voting alongside the party’s moderate wing — will play out on November 3.