Washington — A decision to leave a safe congressional seat and run for Senate could prove risky for a leading Jewish lawmaker who has often found herself in the crosshairs of Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat and leading pro-Israel voice on Capitol Hill, is locked in a dead-heat race in a crucial swing state. Unlike other races involving Jewish candidates, issues relating to Israel and foreign policy have taken a backseat to economic issues as Nevadans struggle with the nation’s highest unemployment and foreclosure rates.
The race, which could determine which party controls the Senate, has drawn national attention and millions of dollars in campaign contributions, including from Adelson, the casino mogul who has been Berkley’s nemesis in their hometown of Las Vegas.
Polls are still showing a virtually tied race between Berkley, 61, and incumbent senator Dean Heller, 52, of Carson City. Public polling has given Heller a slight lead in recent months, while a poll commissioned by the Democratic Party put Berkley ahead. All results, however, are within the margin of error.
Heller, a former Nevada secretary of state, was in his second term in the House of Representatives when appointed by Nevada’s government to serve for the rest of the term of Senator John Ensign, who resigned because of an extramarital affair.
Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman, decided to challenge Heller’s re-election bid, hoping that her personal popularity among southern Nevada voters and the state’s shifting demographics, which favors Democrats, would help catapult her into the Senate.
This summer, Berkley encountered a major setback, as the House Committee on Ethics decided to launch an investigation probing her work to save a Las Vegas kidney transplant center to benefit her husband, a kidney specialist. Berkley dismissed the claims and said her work was aimed at the benefit of her constituents, not her husband, but the investigation is still going on.
While the investigation served as a major distraction during a busy campaigning period, experts believed that the congresswoman weathered the storm, keeping pace in the neck-and-neck race despite it.
“Heller hoped that the ethics investigation against Berkley will consume all the oxygen out of her race, but she is still standing,” said David Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Rochelle Berkley was born in New York and moved to Nevada as a teenager. Her maternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and her father came from a Greek Sephardic family.