Dean Heller, Buffeted on Both Sides, Tries to Save His Nevada Senate Seat

Senator Dean Heller of Nevada at a picnic for veterans in Las Vegas last month. He is the only Republican senator running for re-election this year in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

LAS VEGAS — There was not an overabundance of enthusiasm for Senator Dean Heller when the Nevada Republican Men’s Club gathered for its monthly luncheon at the Bali Hai Golf Club here.

Karl Johnson, a precinct director for the Clark County Republican Party, wrinkled his nose and raised his eyebrows when asked about Mr. Heller’s prospects for re-election. Paul Workman, a banker who supports Mr. Heller, said conservatives are complaining to him about the Republican senator’s shifting stances on health care.

Linda Cannon, a candidate for the Nevada State Assembly, summed up the views of many. “I’m going to hold my nose and vote for him,” she said.

For Mr. Heller, 58, an easygoing ranch owner who is in the unenviable position of being the only Senate Republican up for re-election in a state that Hillary Clinton carried, the “hold your nose” vote may be critical this fall. He is still trying to recover from last year’s health care debacle, when he enraged conservatives by voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — only to anger moderates and Democrats when he turned around and voted for a narrower version of the repeal.

Democrats deride that awkward reversal as a flip-flop, one of many, including an about-face on immigration. The senator’s backers say he was simply making thoughtful decisions. Regardless, it hangs over Mr. Heller, who at the moment is something like a man without a country.

He is struggling to mend fences with backers of President Trump, who have not forgotten that in 2016 he declared himself “vehemently opposed” to Mr. Trump as a candidate. They are suspicious of his recent embrace of the president. But his appeal will have to extend well beyond Mr. Trump’s supporters in a state where polls show Mr. Trump’s popularity near or below 40 percent.

In a private talk to the Republican Men’s Club here last month, Mr. Heller said he was counting on low Democratic turnout to win, according to a leaked audiotape obtained by The Las Vegas Review-Journal. Noting that Democrats outnumber Republicans by fewer than 60,000 registered voters, he said, “If we can get that number below 50,000, I can’t lose.”

And his seat is one both sides desperately need. With Democrats defending 10 Senate seats in states Mr. Trump won, Mr. Heller’s is that rare opportunity to mitigate potential losses. For Republicans clinging to a 51-to-49 Senate majority, Nevada is one of only a handful of states where they are on defense — and in a Democratic sweep, it could be one of the seats that costs them control.

While the president gave him a big boost recently, by nudging Danny Tarkanian, a conservative businessman and perennial candidate, out of the Republican primary, people in both parties say Mr. Heller remains the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate.

“He’s not hard-enough red meat for the Republicans, not moderate enough to satisfy the nonpartisan folks,” said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is following the race.

But Mr. Heller’s chief strategist, Mike Slanker, said that in a swing state like Nevada, Mr. Heller — who has never lost a race in his nearly 30 years in politics — is exactly where he should be. He was recently ranked No. 5 on a list of the most bipartisan senators, developed by the Lugar Center and Georgetown University.

“People may knock him, but he’s a winner,” Mr. Slanker said, “and he’s a winner because voters like him.”

Mr. Heller declined to be interviewed for this article. During a quick hallway conversation in the Capitol in Washington, he brushed off questions and, perhaps only half-jokingly, urged a reporter not to write about his race.

“Don’t do it, don’t do it, it wouldn’t be worth it,” he said with a smile.

In Nevada, he pitches himself to voters as the candidate with experience who can work in a bipartisan way, and he spotlights his work on behalf of veterans, an important constituency in Nevada, and on the recent tax overhaul.

“It’s still Heller’s race to lose,” said Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican strategist here.

Analysts expect the race against his expected Democratic opponent, Representative Jacky Rosen, to get nasty. In a preview of what is to come, the Heller campaign has released a digital advertisement attacking Ms. Rosen over her opposition to the tax bill. His allies are portraying her as a neophyte with a thin résumé who can’t deliver for the state.

Ms. Rosen, 60, casts herself as a fresh face and a woman of the people who worked her way through college as a waitress — and worked her way up as a computer programmer when few women were in the field. In a brief interview, she suggested she would make an issue of Mr. Heller’s embrace of Mr. Trump.

“Dean Heller last year voted 96 percent of the time with Donald Trump, and he’s never voted against a Trump nominee,” Ms. Rosen said. “I’m always going to stand up for Nevada first.”

Complicating the electoral math for Mr. Heller will be an unusual feature of Nevada elections: Voters have the option of casting a ballot for “none of these candidates” — a wild card that could tip the race in Ms. Rosen’s favor. In 2016, Representative Joe Heck, a Republican who like Mr. Heller was openly critical of Mr. Trump, lost a Senate race to a Democrat, Catherine Cortez Masto, by fewer than three percentage points. Nearly 4 percent of voters cast their ballots for no one.

“The people in Nevada who are solid Trump supporters aren’t buying into this idea that now he’s suddenly becoming a Trump supporter,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative blogger here. “They’ve become Never Hellers. And there’s going to be a lot of Trump supporters who will not vote for Dean Heller. They’ll vote for none of the above.”

That said, Republicans are desperate to keep their seat in Nevada. Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative talk show host who has been one of Mr. Heller’s staunchest critics, now says he is “all in” for the senator.

“He’s come a long way,” Mr. Root said. “Is it a miraculous religious conversion or is it just convenience to get elected again? I’m a skeptical guy. We’ll see after the election.”

Mr. Heller, a former Nevada secretary of state, cuts a low-key figure in the Senate. He is media shy; in Washington, he typically takes a back stairway to reach the chamber during votes, to avoid the usual scrum of reporters. Here in Nevada, journalists say he often ducks their questions.

“If you could do a specific Google search to find ‘Heller was not available,’ there would be a lot of results,” said Jon Ralston, the editor of The Nevada Independent.

Friends say the senator, an amateur racecar driver who likes to spend weekends on his ranch in northern Nevada, simply does not seek the limelight.

“He’s not a glitzy guy in any way. It’s just not his nature,” Mr. Rogich said.

Appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2011 to fill a seat left vacant by the departure of John Ensign, Mr. Heller was elected in his own right, by a thin one-point margin, in 2012. The following year, he broke with many in his party to vote in favor of an immigration law overhaul — a vote that pleased Nevada’s growing Hispanic population. But this year, he sided with the president in backing a plan that would sharply limit legal immigration, a move that again exposed him to accusations of flip-flopping.

On health care, the senator voted against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act at the urging of Mr. Sandoval, who has used the law to expand Medicaid in Nevada. The narrower version, which Mr. Heller backed, left the Medicaid expansion intact. Pete Ernaut, a longtime friend and adviser to Mr. Heller, summed up the situation: “There was no perfect answer. It wouldn’t have mattered what he did on that. Somebody would have picked it apart.”

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