PAHRUMP, Nev. — It was the perfect campaign setup for a Republican congressional candidate who showed up in an F-350 pickup and dusty work boots — a room full of potential voters settling in for a barbecue lunch he brought them on a recent Friday at the senior center in rural Pahrump.
But instead of shaking hands inside, Rep. Cresent Hardy spent much of his time outside, crouched over glowing coals and an industrial-sized Dutch oven as he tended to a bacon-infused potato dish for his constituents.
It was emblematic of the spotlight-shirking freshman congressman, who acknowledges the red wave serendipity that swept him into office in Nevada’s solidly Democratic 4th Congressional District in 2014, and the tough road he has to keep the seat in the opposite currents of a presidential year.
“Cresent is, first of all, a workhorse and not a show horse,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, a veteran congressman who’s in northern Nevada’s safe Republican district and is much more at ease talking with the media than Hardy, who joked that he “runs from newspapers.”
The two were roommates in Washington, D.C., until their lease ran out a few months ago; Hardy now sleeps in his office on an air mattress his wife bought at Wal-Mart.
With Congress in a lengthy recess, Hardy and his campaign have knocked on more than 55,000 doors this summer in preparation for a matchup with state Sen. Ruben Kihuen.
The winsome Kihuen emigrated from Mexico at age 8 and counts Sen. Harry Reid and Bill Clinton as supporters. Kihuen notched a wide primary victory over two strong opponents with help from foot soldiers in Vegas’ powerful Culinary Union.
“It is kind of nerve-wracking, but if anyone can do it, he probably can do it,” said Hardy’s wife of 34 years, Peri, who’s watched him wake up before dawn and stay up late studying bills. “Anything he does, he does it to the max.”
Hardy comes from a line of Mormon pioneers who settled the Virgin Valley in the 1870s. His grandfather was the first baby born in Mesquite, and Hardy was the one to break the chain of five ranching generations when he went into construction instead.
He met his wife while she was managing a small store in St. George, and their wedding reception in 1982 included an entire cow barbecued in a dug-out pit.
Hardy took a year of college classes but never earned a degree. His wife describes him as “super talented” in masonry and manual labor, pointing to the brick home he built for them and a handmade fireplace that stretches up an entire wall.
His edge, he said in an interview outside the senior center, is his experience. He served as the Mesquite public works director and on the Mesquite City Council before his two terms in the Nevada Assembly, and he’s served on the boards of a water district, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.
“I’m not an educated man by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not stupid either. I’ve grown up in a world of hard knocks,” he said. “I believe the only man that doesn’t make a mistake is one that’s not doing anything.”
Those hard knocks include triumphs and trials in business. In 1993, he started his own construction company, growing it with a partner to about 350 employees who worked on roads, bridges and commercial projects.
But the recession pummeled construction in Nevada and prompted the company to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012 — a process under which creditors who were owed a combined $8.1 million at the time will all be paid, he said.
He blames government policies for facilitating unscrupulous lending and clearing the way for the recession, and said his work in office is motivated by his concern about the hefty national debt.
Democrats are zealous in linking Hardy to Donald Trump, who he now supports after initially endorsing Marco Rubio. Hardy walks a fine line in the swing district, avoiding public events with the Republican nominee and publicly criticizing some Trump comments, like his remarks about a Gold Star family.
“I’m worried about my race,” Hardy said. “I think people are smart enough to separate the two.”
Opponents have also sought to conflate his public lands policies with those of rancher Cliven Bundy, a fellow Bunkerville resident who refused to pay federal grazing fees and whose supporters staged an armed standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents in 2014.
Hardy said he thinks the proper way forward is through legislation; he wants local and federal governments to work together to transfer about 7.2 million acres of federally managed land to Nevada.
Hardy must also overcome his own tendency toward verbal gaffes, which contrast with Kihuen’s polish. Ryan Erwin, the political consultant credited with recruiting Hardy for a seat most saw as unwinnable for Republicans, said Hardy’s strength is his interest in putting his head down and solving problems for constituents.
“He’s a genuine person who’s genuinely committed to doing the right thing,” Erwin said. “He’s not addicted to D.C. He could be just as happy sitting out next to his campfire.”