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Politics & Government

Nevada Congressman's Loss Exposed Raw Nerve In Democratic Caucus

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Eleven Democratic incumbents lost their seats on Election Day. This is the story of one of the most unexpected losses, that of Steven Horsford, a freshman from Nevada. His defeat is a tale about politics, and it's also about race. As NPR's Juana Summers reports, his failure to win reelection has exposed a raw nerve within the Democratic caucus.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Steven Horsford was a Democratic star in the making. He rose so quickly in state politics that some people thought that the 41-year-old could one day be Nevada's first African-American governor. But his career hit a wall in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And a giant upset unfolded in the 4th Congressional District.

SUMMERS: Horsford wasn't expected to be in serious trouble. But by this fall it was clear that his chances were fading. And Democrats brought out the big guns for him. President Obama even stepped in and cut a radio ad on his behalf.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Election Day is Tuesday, November 4. And before Steven can keep fighting for you, Steven needs you to go vote for him. Michelle and I support Steven Horsford, and we're asking you to vote for him...

SUMMERS: The presidential step of approval was not enough. Horsford lost, a victim of a political-perfect storm, says Eric Herzik at the University of Nevada, Reno.

ERIC HERZIK: Bad year for Democrats. Obama was an anchor on folks. Horsford's running a district where half of it's rural. You had a very weak Democratic top of the ticket in the state. You start adding all those things up, and it wasn't a good year to be a Democrat nationally and particularly not in Nevada.

SUMMERS: Back in Washington, the blowback was instant. Horsford's loss exposed deep grievances among some members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They said it was a case where a black member of Congress lost because he didn't get enough help from the Democratic Party. Here's Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

REPRESENTATIVE EMANUEL CLEAVER: There isn't a great deal of attention paid to any of the seats held by African Americans because they assume that it's overwhelmingly black and that the black voters are going to stick with the black elected official.

SUMMERS: What Cleaver and other CBC members are saying is very nuance. They believe that the party is operating with the misguided assumption that black members are always easily reelected. Congressman Marcia Fudge, the most recent CBC chair, put it another way.

REPRESENTATIVE MARCIA FUDGE: Well, Steven said in the very beginning, right after he was elected two years ago, that in a nonpresidential year his race was going to be a tough race. I think no one was listening.

SUMMERS: If Horsford slipped through the cracks, who's to blame? Here's Fudge again.

FUDGE: Clearly, I think we were in a position to do more than we did. I'm talking about the Democratic caucus.

SUMMERS: I reached out to the party committee that's responsible for electing Democrats to the House. A spokesman insisted they went in big to protect a member who looked to be in trouble. More to the point, the committee said that early on they offered him a place in something called Frontline. That's a program that's designed to help members who are at risk of losing their seats. Horsford turned them down. They do agree with Fudge on one point - that this loss left a scar, especially since Horsford was one of few members of color representing a swing district.

One voice you haven't heard yet during this story is Congressman Steven Horsford's. He didn't want to talk. But his spokesman told me that Horsford would absolutely consider running for Congress again. While Horsford declined an interview, he did appear on the local public affairs program "Ralston Reports" a few weeks after his loss. He took full responsibility for his own defeat, and he refused to point fingers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RALSTON REPORTS")

STEVEN HORSFORD: If anything, I did not do enough to engage with the voters and to hear directly enough about the frustrations that they were having with the direction that things are going.

SUMMERS: Nearly everyone I spoke to said this isn't the end of Steven Horsford's story. He's left the door open to a comeback. And if there is a next time, his campaign is likely to follow a different script. Juana Summers, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.