Nevada’s Republican Senator Dean Heller may be in the political fight for his life. Political pundits have named him one of the most vulnerable members of Congress, and now he faces a challenge from within his own party. Our News Director Michelle Billman sat down with our political reporter Paul Boger to get the latest on Senator Heller’s reelection campaign.
Paul, let’s start off with why we’re speaking to each other instead of airing an interview with Senator Heller.
Well, that simple. We never got a response from his camp, even after repeated requests for an interview. That being said, it seems, Senator Heller really isn’t talking to anyone in the press. He’s done an occasional interview, most notably with the Nevada Newsmakers about a month-and-a-half ago, but even there Senator Heller refused to discuss the campaign.
Alright, well, since we don’t have Senator Heller with us, let’s talk a little bit where he seems to stand currently in his reelection bid.
Yeah, so, Senator Heller is in a tight spot. Lately, it seems no matter what he does he can’t seem to please anybody. Let’s take the healthcare reform.
A prime example of this is earlier this year. It seemed Senator Heller was going to be one of the deciding votes on efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. For weeks, no one was able to get a straight answer on how he would vote on the proposed repeal and replace bill.
In the end, he voted for the measure, but he never gave the repeal bill the full-throated support that his base wanted. Heck, in the days leading up to the vote, President Donald Trump even threatened Heller with his job, to his face, during a press availability.
At the same time, Senator Heller voted for the repeal bill and, even though it ultimately failed, a number of moderates felt that was a betrayal.
And that’s just one of the issues that led to Senator Heller getting a primary challenge from the right with Las Vegas attorney Danny Tarkanian.
So, why is this primary challenge such a big deal? For the most part, incumbents do pretty well against challengers.
Normally that’s true. But Danny Tarkanian is no ordinary challenger. First off, he’s got name recognition.
His father was a basketball coach at UNLV, and he’s run for office several times, most recently last election against Jacky Rosen.
And Tarkanian has a history of doing really well in primaries. He runs to the right of his more moderate opponents and is able to snatch away victory from establishment candidates.
Anti-establishment candidates have also gotten a lot of help in recent months from folks like Former Presidential Advisor Steve Bannon. That could all play against Heller.
It’s also important to note, Nevada has a closed primary. That means only registered Republicans are going to be able to vote in that election. Heller won’t be able to count on the moderate, independent voters available in the general election next November. So he may be in real trouble there, especially if there’s low turnout.
So what will Senator Heller need to do to win?
Well, first and for most, he needs to do everything in his power to repeal the Affordable Care Act. At this point, that’s Tarkanian’s biggest talking point. Many conservative voters see this as the “flagship” issue. And despite his effort to include himself with the Graham-Cassidy bill that would have ended block grant Medicaid payments to states -- a key provision of the ACA which also died -- but it may not be enough to redeem himself with some voters.
He also needs to ally himself with President Trump. You know, despite the President’s low approval numbers overall, his popularity among Republicans remains in the high 70’s. If Heller can get the President’s endorsement that would be a huge bump. However, it’s not a guarantee of victory – just look at what happened in the Alabama Republican runoff a few weeks ago.
There’s also the outside chance that another Republican could enter the race, especially one who may run further to the right of Tarkanian. That could further dilute votes away from his main opponent.
All of that being said, there are more than seven months until the Republican primary in June, and a lot can happen. So at this point, it’s anybody’s race.