Immigration reform looms large in CD3, but can it cut Heck?

It's no secret that the Democrats hope to use immigration reform against Rep. Joe Heck, nor is it hard to figure out that the incumbent would try to thread the needle on the issue.

Hispanics make up 16 percent of Congressional District Three, where both national parties will fight for a seat that is considered one of the more competitive in the country. The issue's potential saliency in the race became obvious this week.

In just the last 24 hours, Democratic candidate Erin Bilbray botched an opportunity to use the issue against Heck, then tried to change the subject after her "un-American gaffe." And on Friday, Heck sprinted as far as he could go from House leaders on the issue, reaffirming he is sensitive to its potency as well.

For context, Heck has never been as far right as Sen. Dean Heller was before he lost in a mega-landslide in that demographic cohort in 2012. The congressman has said he believes in a pathway to citizenship but said he has problems with some of the border security and enforcement mechanisms in the comprehensive reform bill Heller voted for but has never reached the House floor.

Heck, though, is vulnuerable on immigration for two reasons:

1. He's a Republican, so ipso facto it's a problem in a swing district where Latino turnout could be significant. Heck has polled higher than most Republicans in Nevada among Hispanics, but that could change with the right campaign.

2. He has votes that could be used against him, especially trying to undo the president's so-called deferred action for DREAMers. Heck has said he disagreed with the process used -- he said he believes Congress should decide. But try saying that in response to an attack ad and see who wins. Heck's opposition to the Senate bill, despite being for some of the parts, also can be caricatured. Heck also has said the issue of birthright citizenship needs to be part of the debate, and he has a few votes as a state senator that could be incendiary, including during a 2007 debate over whether illegal immigrant kids should have access to financial aid.

Against that backdrop, though, Bilbray missed an opportunity on "Ralston Reports" Wednesday. After I asked her how big an issue immigration would be in the campaign, she replied: "I think it’s huge.  I mean I support a pathway to citizenship.  Joe Heck does not."

But that's simply not so -- at least not now -- and I played a town hall video from August in which Heck said:

"Well I believe that again that the pathway that the senate bill has laid out is a reasonable pathway.  I think when you look at having to go through background checks, having to pay a fine, having to make sure that your tax liabilities are paid, making sure that you then are in really a provisional status for a period of time where you have to learn English, you have to show that you’ve got a job – I mean there’s a lot of safeguards here to show that you have a job making a certain amount of money so that you’re not likely to become in public charge.  All those kinds of things before you’re even eligible for the green card."

Bilbray responded that Heck is "flipping and flopping and not standing for anything.  He says that but there is a bill that is a bipartisan Senate bill that was a compromise that came forward and they will not pull it up for a vote on the House."

True enough. And the argument could be made that Heck should have publicly called on House leaders to do so long ago if he cared so much about it.

After Bilbray's "un-Amercian" attack on the program went viral, her campaign first tried to clarify and then seized on the opportunity to change the subject to immigration. Heck moved first on Friday, pivoting from a Politico storysaying House leaders would not vote on immigration reform this year.

Heck put out a statement: "It’s extremely frustrating and very disappointing to hear reports that the House does not plan on voting on immigration reform legislation this year. This is yet another example of the leadership vacuum in Washington that rightly has so many people frustrated with this dysfunctional Congress. There is a clear, bipartisan consensus among House members that immigration reform is the right thing to do both for people in this country and for our economy."

That was the pre-emptive strike, smoothly if obviously done.

Bilbray, showing alacrity, responded right away:

"House Republicans continue to hold our country back, first by shutting down the government for 16 days, and now by refusing to take up comprehensive immigration reform this year.  Joe Heck may claim he is frustrated about his inability to get anything done on immigration, but he has already made it clear on several occasions that he opposes the bipartisan bill that came out of the Senate which Republicans, including Nevada Senator Dean Heller and Arizona Senator John McCain, supported. The simple fact is that Heck opposes the only currently viable approach to immigration reform supported by members of both parties.  This is just another example of Joe Heck hedging his bets when things really count.  Nevadans are tired of this kind of approach from Washington politicians and if Joe Heck can't get something done with the leaders of his party, it's time to send someone to Congress who can.”

Not bad. And within a few hours of Heck's statement.

Ultimately, of course, this will come down to message delivery, especially in paid media. But here's what I expect: Heck will be much more outspoken about the issue, trying to distance himself from House leaders, while Bilbray will continue to try to portray him, aided by some of his votes, as being as hostile to immigration reform as Dean Heller in a previous incarnation.