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In stepping aside, Kihuen lives to fight another day

It’s not clear what the final straw was for state Sen. Ruben Kihuen.

Was it poll numbers showing him losing badly to former Rep. Dina Titus that convinced Kihuen to get out of the race for Congressional District 1 this week?

Was it the fact that Titus reporting raising $233,000 more than he did in the last fundraising period, or that she had nearly $200,000 more in the bank?

Was it the fact that the union support so necessary to a Democratic bid for office simply wasn’t there? (That includes the Culinary union, whom Kihuen angered in 2008 with his support of Hillary Clinton for president when the union was with Barack Obama.)

Was it the results of a new poll reportedly in the field shortly before Kihuen decided to pull the plug on his campaign?

Did Harry Reid, who had not-so-subtly supported Kihuen’s ambitions, finally advise the young senator to take a pass and avoid suffering a humiliating defeat that could have depressed Latino voter turnout and hurt other candidates?

Kihuen didn’t return calls this week, but in a statement posted on his website, he gave his reasons: "Unfortunately, the reality is that continuing my efforts to win in what would promise to be a resource draining primary at this time is not in the best interest for me, my family, my community and my party."

And in that, he’s absolutely right. Not only did the potential Kihuen-Titus faceoff divide longtime Democratic allies, it threatened to create havoc with a key Democratic constituency, Latinos.

Kihuen had the passionate support of Latino leaders — Fernando Romero of Hispanics in Politics went so far in a news conference to call him "our American dream." The possibility of the first Latino congressman from Nevada excited that community.

The only problem? Titus was going to win — and the race certainly could have turned ugly. And while a Democrat, thanks to the district’s demographics, will retain the seat no matter what, if Latino voters discouraged by a Kihuen primary loss were to stay home in the general election, Democrats from President Barack Obama to U.S. Senate hopeful Shelley Berkley to Assembly and state Senate candidates could suffer.

"It’s good news. It’s good news because we part friends before it got nasty," said Titus, who added the Kihuen announcement took her by surprise. "It’s good that it ended before it got nasty."

Although some Latino voters may be disappointed that they won’t get a chance to vote for Kihuen in June, it’s better than many Latinos getting angered because their candidate was defeated. Plus, Titus gets to avoid being blamed for other candidates’ losses.

In addition, Kihuen (along with Reid) immediately endorsed Titus for the 1st District. If he campaigns for her — he’s said he will help all Democrats in the 2012 cycle — it will go a long way toward closing the rift.

Although the sincerity of some of the post-announcement news releases could be called into question, one thing most of them said was sincere: Kihuen has a bright future. He represents a key demographic that Democrats want to keep.

But his nascent campaign also pointed out a weak spot: his lack of policy experience. He’s not known as a person who takes on issues or has a depth of knowledge about them. That’s something he should fix, starting in the 2013 Legislature, if he wants to buttress his resume for a future run.

Kihuen may not be on the ballot in 2012. But he’ll be there again soon, with a bid for re-election or for higher office in 2014. And there’s that U.S. Senate seat that just may be open in 2016, too.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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