WASHINGTON — After eight years in Congress, Rep. Mark Amodei has risen to a point of distinction he never hoped for: he is the only Republican left representing Nevada in Washington, D.C.
As the last GOP standard-bearer in the delegation, Amodei says he feels a sense of responsibility to be a “conduit” between his state and the Republican administration.
“Part of it is kind of perverse, now I am a collector’s item instead of a face in the crowd,” Amodei said in an interview with the Nevada Current last week.
The 2018 midterm elections saw a major shift for Nevada Republicans, when Democrat Jacky Rosen beat the incumbent Republican, Dean Heller, for the Senate seat. Heller was the only Republican Senator to lose his re-election bid in that election.
With her victory, Rosen joined Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and an increasingly Democratic House delegation from Nevada. For Amodei, he says that meant he could no longer lean on the “big shots” in the Senate to help him get the attention of the administration.
“When you’re the last of the Mohicans, there is a lot more responsibility than when Heller was there,” Amodei said. “If you’re the only pony doing tricks on the elephant side, you’ve got to get to work.”
For Amodei, he says that work focuses on his district. And indeed, most of the legislation he has introduced in past years has been hyper-local, focused on Nevada lands management or small land conveyances. Twelve of the 14 bills he introduced in the last Congress had to do with local land management issues in Nevada. None of them became law.
But Amodei says oversight is as big a responsibility for him as legislation, and he feels “a heightened sense of responsibility” to be a “conduit” to the administration on Nevada issues.
That doesn’t necessarily mean calling the White House every week, he said, but involves regularly meeting with the Navy and Air Force on planned expansions of their bases in Nevada, and regular meetings with various parts of the Department of the Interior on land management in a state where 63 percent of its land is public.
Even though he is the only Republican, Amodei said the state delegation is still congenial and working together well — although he said he does not want to miss any meetings since he is the only GOP voice. They had their first delegation meeting last week.
Top on the agenda for many on the delegation is blocking the Trump administration’s effort to open the process for nuclear waste storage at Yucca mountain. Amodei is no fan of bringing nuclear waste to Nevada, but said it may be inevitable without a powerful force like former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid blocking it. Lawmakers outside Nevada do not want nuclear waste in their states, either, and every time the issue has come to a vote, the House has overwhelmingly supported Yucca.
“When push comes to shove, no matter how much goodwill there is or how people smile at you, they are going to continue to say, ‘It is too bad about that, I feel your pain, but I don’t want [nuclear waste] stored here,’” Amodei said of his colleagues from outside Nevada.
His focus is to make sure there are safeguards if Yucca Mountain does ultimately accept waste.
‘Politics in the West are changing’
Amodei is an old-guard Republican in a state with rapidly changing political dynamics. Nevada has doubled its congressional seats so far this century, due largely to booming population growth in the Las Vegas area. The state went from two congressional representatives in 2000 to four after the 2010 census. Democrats picked up both of those newer seats in 2016.
“The idea that a very conservative state such as Nevada can be down to one Republican is interesting,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and Reid’s former spokesman. “It is a strong indication that politics in the West are changing and that Democrats have a real chance to play in some formerly conservative states such as Nevada.”
The increasing Democratic support in Nevada comes not only from a growing number of left-leaning voters in Las Vegas and Clark County, but also from stronger Democratic showings in Reno and Washoe County. Statewide offices have all gone to Democrats, too. The only Republican holding a statewide office is Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske.
Most of the population growth in Nevada is centered around Las Vegas, which has seen an influx of people moving in from California and other parts of the United States and has an electorate that is younger and more racially diverse than the rest of the state. It’s the 11th fastest-growing metropolitan area, according to Forbes.
That growth affects statewide politics and other regions, but not Amodei’s deep red 2nd District, which covers the northern third of the state from Carson City eastward.
While the more populous urban areas of Nevada are becoming more progressive, the northern part of the state stands apart both by geography and politics, according to Robert Lang, a professor of urban affairs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“These are two of the most dichotomous places I have ever seen,” Lang said of the northern and southern parts of Nevada.
“Amodei’s politics reflects the northern part of the state. Not one part of his district comes anywhere near the glitz, the strip, the sunbelt,” Lang said.
The state may be experiencing a Democratic trend, but analysts say Amodei’s seat is safely Republican. Amodei won his 2018 election with 58 percent of the vote, against Democrat Clint Koble.
“That district will elect a Republican under almost all circumstances,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the newsletter Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis for political campaigns.
‘God damnit, you were raised better than that’
Amodei grew up in Carson City, Nev., and he credits a childhood in the state capital for leading him into politics. His own family had no involvement in politics, but Amodei says he watched in awe at the work of the mayor, sheriff, and the “big deal, big shots” who came into town when the Legislature was in session.
“It wasn’t hero worship, but they were people that people looked up to, and then being in the same small town, the state capital, you paid attention to it,” Amodei said.
So when he saw an opportunity to run for office, Amodei went for it. He was student class president of Carson High School in 1976, graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1980 and went to law school at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge Law School. He was a JAG in the Army, then returned home to practice law in Carson City and Reno.
He started his career in politics in 1996 when he was elected to the Nevada Assembly. Two years later he edged out an incumbent Democrat for a seat in the Nevada State Senate and went on to serve two more terms, where he came under criticism for serving a brief tenure as the head of the Nevada Mining Association while in the state Senate.
The opportunity for national office came in 2011, when one of Nevada’s congressional seats opened for a special election. The opening resulted from a cascade of events when Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) resigned amid an ethics investigation about his attempts to hide an extramarital affair. Heller, who had been in the House, was appointed to Ensign’s Senate seat by former Gov. Brian Sandoval. Amodei ran in the special election for the now-vacant congressional seat. He easily won it with 58 percent of the vote.
“I remember my dad telling me; ‘It was bad enough when you went to law school and now you want to get involved in politics? God damnit, you were raised better than that!’” Amodei said. “He was not smiling when he said it and he was not smiling when he was done.”
Amodei’s father was born in Elko, never went to college, and worked in forestry for most of his adult life. He was a deputy state forester for fire management, “the Smokey the Bear guy,” as his son calls him. Although his son has taken a different path, those issues of land management still follow him.
Amodei’s political career has involved saying yes when opportunities presented themselves. And if he were asked to chair Trump’s 2020 campaign in Nevada, as he did in 2016, he said it would be another yes. Amodei is the only Nevada Republican who currently holds a national office.
“Frankly, if the president says ‘I want you to be honorary chair for Nevada stuff,’ what am I going to say? No?” Amodei said. “There is nothing wrong with wanting a strong relationship with the chief executive of the federal government, especially if in the same party. That will upset a lot of people, but it is how I see it.”