Tips from the Trail: Exploiting an Opponent's Mistake

When small businesswoman Elizabeth Halseth decided to run for Nevada state Senate as a Republican, she was initially written off by the political establishment of both parties.

To even get to the general election, she would have to win a primary against the incumbent, Senator Dennis Nolan, who had held the seat since 2002 and been a state representative for eight years before that. Daunting obstacles stood in the way of her quest for the District 9 Senate seat, which covers most of Clark County, stretching from Las Vegas down to Laughlin on the Colorado River, and is the most populous Senate district in the state.

How she overcame the myriad obstacles before her provides a useful object lesson for citizens interested in entering politics.

Halseth, like many first-time candidates in 2010, had no background in politics and was moved to run out of conviction. Her neighbors lauded her interest in entering politics, but the establishment did not.

“When you run against an incumbent, lobbyists, businesspeople do not want to talk to you,” she says. Halseth claims that members of both parties warned community members against donating to her campaign, which posed major fundraising challenges. Her only option was to move the race on issues and, since Nolan had the clear advantage in name recognition that comes with incumbency, she had a steep hill to climb. 

Halseth first tried to make an issue of Nolan’s votes for tax increases in the Senate, but the tactic yielded limited traction with voters. What did resonate, however, was Nolan’s subpoena-mandated 2008 court appearance as a character witness for an accused, and later convicted, rapist who had targeted his own underage sister-in-law. After her campaign was tipped off to this testimony by a concerned citizen, Halseth produced an effective mailer calling attention to it.

Nolan countered that the mailer falsely implied that he had testified willingly and that he had abused his office to intervene in the proceedings of a rape case.

”I was subpoenaed to testify on a sexual assault case for a gentleman that I knew,” recalls Nolan. “There is no way you can testify on that or anything without it becoming a new issue.” 

In turn, Halseth says that her campaign did its homework before making Nolan’s testimony an issue. “We had the [victim’s] father come in and we did a lot of research on it before we brought it forward,” Halseth recalls. “We did a radio ad which ran for about a week on that.” Her efforts began to raise doubts about Nolan among his supporters, but it was by no means a death blow.

What eventually did Nolan in was a voicemail message he left for Jamie Anderson Lawes, the wife of the accused and sister of the victim, saying that it would be "very financially beneficial" for her to “[tell] the truth” and help make the testimony issue go away.

The Halseth campaign pounced on what sounded like the offer of a bribe immediately launching a radio ad in which the father of the rape victim implored voters to tell Senator Nolan that “defending child rapists is not okay.” The ad contributed significantly to bringing Nolan’s political career to a halt. 

Nolan, for his part, says he did not offer a bribe to the wife of the accused, arguing that in fact he was simply asking her to tell the truth. In a statement on the matter, released on June 1st, he maintains steadfastly that he committed no wrongdoing and points out that his alleged bribe offer led to no investigation by law enforcement.

In fact, Nolan says that an investigation he financed himself uncovered evidence that Anderson Lawes may have been lying about the circumstances of the rape. “That whole controversy… really convoluted the race,” Nolan recalls. “At the end of the day, it turned into a Jerry Springer nightmare.”

Perception is everything in politics, however, and Nolan’s testimony in the rape case did not look good. Soon, Halseth found that the lobbyists and businesspeople who had initially spurned her were warming to her campaign. She went on to win the primary 57 to 43 percent.

Though Democrats have a slight registration edge in Nevada’s 9th Senate district, the district is relatively conservative, going in 2010 for both Republican Governor-elect Brian Sandoval and Republican Representative-elect Joe Heck. Halseth won in the general as well, defeating her Democratic opponent, Benny Yerushalmi, by 4,506 votes of the 78,810 cast.

While she credits assistance from her technology firm and the strength of the Republican wave of 2010 with helping her to victory, she would never have had the chance to win in the general if not for her skillful exploitation of Nolan’s her primary opponent’s missteps.

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