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Tarkanian jumps in GOP U.S. Senate race, giving Heller a primary challenge

Republican Danny Tarkanian announced Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, he is mounting a primary challenge to Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable Republicans in 2018. (KSNV)

On the day his father would have turned 87, and at the basketball camp that bears the last name of that basketball legend, Danny Tarkanian says he's the true Trump believer – and Washington needs more of 'em.

“The only way we're going to get our country turned around is if we have more people that support our president,” he told me in his office overlooking a very busy basketball court.

In a move widely anticipated in conservative circles, Tarkanian jumped in the race for U.S. Senate, taking on an incumbent Republican seen as vulnerable in a state that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It sets up what will no doubt be an expensive and bruising primary.

It is Tarkanian’s sixth run for office – and his second for U.S. Senate. In 2010, he lost the Senate primary to Sharron Angle, who went on to lose to Harry Reid.

But it’s now 2017.

“Over the past several months, I’ve had so many people call and encourage me to run for the US Senate,” Tarkanian told me.

RELATED | The right is riled-up; do Republicans want to repeal and replace Dean Heller?

He’s in the race because Trump’s Nevada base is upset – upset Sen. Dean Heller kept his distance from the top-of-the-ticket during the election, largely because he was turned off by Trump's tough talk about immigrants and his locker-room talk about women.

While other Republicans fled the president last fall, “I was the only candidate in Southern Nevada that supported President Trump to the end of the campaign,” says Tarkanian.

If the right is riled-up about Heller being a so-called "Never Trumper," it's furious over the fact Heller helped put the brakes on repeal and replace.

So is Tarkanian, who points to Heller’s June 23 appearance with Gov. Brian Sandoval when they criticized the GOP plan for the cuts they said it would cause. Heller, Tarkanian said, “not just voted against the repeal of Obamacare, but he grandstanded with his press conference,” Tarkanian said, which he claims helped take the air out of the repeal effort. Other Senate Republicans also came out against the GOP’s Senate bill.

Heller voted to allow debate on a bill to proceed but voted against a straight Obamacare repeal. He later voted for a slimmed-down version and continues, according to reports, to help craft a compromise measure.

Heller let his campaign do the talking today about a Tarkanian challenge.

RELATED | Race for Heller's U.S. Senate seat could get crowded from both sides

In a statement, it said, “We are not surprised,” adding “Danny Tarkanian is a perennial candidate,” and "he's wasted conservatives' time and cost the Republican party seats up and down the ballot.

“Dean Heller is a proven leader and is the only candidate with a solid record voters can count on,” the Heller campaign concluded.

As far as costing candidates victory, Tarkanian points to last fall, when he says Heller and company should have stayed with Trump.

“Dean Heller and the rest of the ‘never Trumpers’ hurt all the down ballot tickets here in Nevada, including my race,” Tarkanian says.

Tarkanian's entry now sets up a bruising primary. Heller enters with a war chest passing $3.5 million and support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose campaign machine is swinging into action on Heller’s behalf.

“The NRSC (National Republican Senatorial Committee) fully supports Senator Heller in his primary and general elections, and we are confident he will be re-elected,” the organization said Tuesday in a statement.

Conservatives say Tarkanian will be up to the challenge.

“Now we have a legitimate candidate with name recognition that can raise money statewide. Danny Tarkanian will be a tough test for Dean Heller,” says 790 Talk Now’s Kevin Wall.

Tarkanian was a fixture at Trump rallies. Will the president help him, I asked?

“I’ve been told he won’t get involved in a Republican primary – that he won’t help someone challenge an incumbent senator – that Mitch McConnell will stop him,” Tarkanian told me, adding, “but there’s never been a more clear distinction between Senator Heller and myself with respect to President Trump and his America First policies.”

Contacted by News 3 Tuesday, the White House had no comment about the pending primary challenge.

Democrats, however, were talking.

“Republicans are now set to suffer through a nasty and expensive primary that will expose the flaws in both of their candidates,” said David Bergstein, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In the meantime, voters will have months to watch this race accelerate. The primary is next June.

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