Cliven Bundy has been in the news again, and House Democrats couldn't be happier that the Nevada rancher is back.
Bundy, who rose to national prominence last year during an armed standoff with federal employees, spoke last month at the state Capitol to support a bill on land management. Two weeks later, he held a three-day event celebrating the anniversary of the showdown. But he's not the only one still talking about the Bundy Ranch confrontation: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hopes to turn Bundy into a bogeyman and an anchor to the GOP in one of the country's most diverse and closely watched congressional races.
Freshman Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy won Nevada's 4th District in an upset last year, unseating incumbent Democrat Steven Horsford partly thanks to unusually low turnout among Democrats. In Clark County, the most left-leaning portion of the district, turnout plummeted by nearly half compared to the presidential election two years before. In 2016, Hardy will likely face a more liberal electorate as well as a more forceful attack from Democrats who didn't take him seriously last cycle.
The key to Democrats' strategy against Hardy: He's from the same part of the district as Bundy, he sided with Bundy in the debate over the federal government's control of public lands, and he only mildly rebuked Bundy for his controversial statements on race—in a district that's mostly minority.
During a debate last fall, Horsford called Bundy a "lawbreaker," while Hardy responded, "I stand with Cliven Bundy on the land issues and First Amendment rights." And he took only a small step back from his support after Bundy publicly questioned whether "the Negro" had been "better off as slaves," responding that the comments were "inappropriate" but that he didn't believe Bundy had meant to offend African Americans.
As up to eight Democrats vie for the nomination to challenge Hardy, national Democrats hope to tie Hardy to Bundy, casting him as an extremist. When Bundy gathered supporters to celebrate the anniversary of his standoff with the federal government, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement calling on Hardy to condemn Bundy.
"A failure to do so—and a continued refusal to apologize for his own litany of offensive comments— will be a big issue for Hardy as he faces an already uphill reelection," said DCCC communications director Matt Thornton.
Ryan Erwin, a campaign consultant for Hardy, called national Democrats' focus on Bundy a desperate attempt to put Hardy in a negative light as its own candidates move toward what could be a chaotic, hard-fought primary. (State Sen. Ruben Kihuen, the only Democrat to announce his candidacy so far, did not respond to requests for comment through his Senate office or a campaign consultant.)
"There is no valid connection between Cliven Bundy and Cresent Hardy," Erwin said. "But when Washington, D.C. Democrats try to make that connection, it probably makes them feel good and they probably giggle and pat themselves on the back."
Regardless of the extent to which Democrats can tie Hardy to Bundy, the tactic demonstrates the diversity of a congressional district that includes some of the state's most urban and rural areas. It stretches from the northwestern portion of Las Vegas all the way up to vast, sparsely populated northern Nevada. The district's southern border comes within three miles of the Las Vegas Strip, yet it also encompasses Bundy Ranch, along Nevada's eastern border with Arizona.
Thanks to the district's fluctuation in turnout, Hardy, a former state assemblyman from a town of about 15,000 people, will have to win over Democratic voters in more urban areas in order to defend his seat, Erwin said. (Over 100,000 fewer Clark County voters showed up in this district in 2014 compared to 2012, and many will be back next year in the presidential election.) And Erwin hopes the DCCC's focus on tying Hardy to Bundy is a sign they hope to "generically turn out as many Democrats as possible," rather than trying to win over independents. Hardy's best hope, Erwin said, is to earn a good reputation for constituent services while Democrats come across as too partisan.
"Any winning candidate is going to have to get crossover votes," Erwin said. "I think Democrats in Washington are looking at this as a pure math game, and that's not how winning campaigns are run."
Former state Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, a Democrat who is considering entering the race, agreed that his party's nominee will be focused on appealing to supporters in the Las Vegas metro area rather than winning over independents and Republicans. Oceguera, who lost to Rep. Joe Heck by more than seven points in a neighboring district in 2012, said he would be the most likely Democrat to appeal to rural voters (he's originally from Fallon, in northwestern Nevada). But even he would spend about 80 percent of his time in the general election campaigning in urban areas, Oceguera said.
"Practically, in terms of numbers, it's going to be in Clark County," he said. "You have to focus a lot of attention in Clark County."
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Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.