Too many Democratic deserters cost Berkley a U.S. Senate seat

I wonder, as she was riding in a gondola down the Grand Canal four years ago, perhaps gazing up at her luxury (but discounted) room, if Rep. Shelley Berkley ever thought: “This might be a problem.”

I doubt it.

But that congressional trip, which she led, with that ill-fated Venezia sojourn, may have cost her a chance at a U.S. Senate seat. Or not.

Berkley’s campaign clearly thought this ad, which falsely implied she had charged taxpayers $55,000 for an Italian vacation with her husband, hurt her because her last spot was a defense, arguing (somehow, I’d guess, not believably) that she was not living the Italian high life but preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons (or words to that effect). But whether it was that ad or others that Sen. Dean Heller ran against her – or she aired lacerating him – the 93,645 voters who cast ballots for David Vanderbeek (he’s not even the guy from “Dawson’s Creek,” folks!) and “none of these candidates” killed her candidacy.

Yes, it’s rank speculation. But I have to believe a serious subset of those people were prospective Berkley voters who would never vote for Heller but who could not bring themselves to hold their noses and vote for her because the stench of unethical behavior was too pungent.

Since September 2011, when the New York Times first exposed her congressional actions that could have benefited her kidney doctor husband, Berkley has been weighted down by the issue and a subsequent House Ethics Committee probe. Heller and outside groups relentlessly pounded her in ads, driving her negatives up to Harry Reid-like levels. For those who didn't know here before or didn't know her well -- and there were hundreds of thousands of those -- it was not the nicest of introductions. Her campaign tried to muddy the waters by raising questions about Heller's ethics, but they were not nearly so potent and she constantly seemed to be flailing to find a good line of attack.

Her campaign, though, did do a good job of controlling her appearances for most of the campaign, fearful that the ever-ebullient congresswomen might add to her baggage with a verbal miscue. I think her team set a record for collective holding of breath during the hour-long "Ralston Reports" debate, which did not produce any gaffes she would have to mitigate.

Berkley was never a favorite in the race. I always thought Heller had a slight edge because of his statewide ballot experience and his relatively pristine, albeit modest record. She would not play well up North, and, as it turns out, she did not play very much with the northerners. Washoe County would be Heller’s firewall, I believed, and he won there by more than 20,000 votes.

But Berkley also could not hold the Democratic base. She ran a whopping 50,000 votes behind President Obama in Clark County – he won by 14 and a half points and she by only 9. A Democrat winning Clark by fewer than 10 points is always going to be in trouble. And the rural wipeout – nearly 40,000 votes – was about as bad as it gets.

This base-bleeding is so ironic because no one has been a more loyal partisan than Berkley, a former Democratic national committeewoman who doesn't miss the most minor of party events. And this is her thanks.

Yet: She almost won.

“We have no business being where we are,” one Democratic insider told me on the eve of the balloting. “But we are.”

That is testament to the power of the Democratic machine and the drag Mitt Romney was on Heller, which his campaign realized a month or so ago, and his team began to fret about whether he could hold on. He barely did.

Exit polls show Berkley ran up the score (40 points!) with Hispanics, but lost independents by too wide a margin (20 points) to survive. If she had just run a little stronger in Clark County, the result would have been different, too.

So Heller becomes the only GOP Senate candidate to hold on in a state that went blue in the presidential race, garnering the lowest percentage of the vote (just under 46) in decades for a U.S. senator and showing that he needed every dollar of those Crossroads/AFP millions spent here to save him. Now we get to find out the answer to the mystery: Which Dean Heller will we see during the next six years? The “No Labels” Dean, the Tea Party Dean or....the Latino-loving Dean?

I hear the senator just purchased Rosetta Stone…