Heller hits Tark in preview of brutal primary to come

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is interviewed Tuesday, August 15, 2017, in Las Vegas. (KSNV)

A week after Danny Tarkanian, the son of a Las Vegas basketball legend, announced his sixth run for office and slammed the senator whose job he wants, Dean Heller returned the favor.

“I will tell you, I think Danny Tarkanian has run for every office conceivable in this state and now he’s on his second time around,” Heller told me, adding, “and there’s two sure things, and one is that Danny’s going to lose, and number two – he’s going to sue whoever he runs against.”

Heller was referring to two legal battles Tarkanian fought, one in which he was awarded $150,000 in a defamation lawsuit against former State Senator Mike Schneider, and the other, another defamation suit, proceeding against the Democrat who beat him last November, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen.

Heller, considered the most vulnerable Senate GOP incumbent up for reelection in 2018, told me he always expected a fight.

“Well, first of all, I always knew I’d have a primary,” Heller says. “I’m a red candidate in a blue state so it was never going to be easy.”

Tarkanian is making his calling card the fact that he stands with President Trump, for whom he campaigned during the 2016 election.

“The only way we’re going to get our country turned around is if we have people that support our President,” Tarkanian told me last Tuesday.

In Tarkanian’s view, Heller deserves special scorn for being one of the mainstream Republicans who said they could not support Trump last fall after the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” video. In it, Trump was channeling his inner locker-room, talking about women in a fashion many found offensive. Heller, throughout the campaign, was also critical of Trump’s language about immigrants, a community Heller has assiduously courted.

“Dean Heller was not only one of the first “Never Trumpers” here in the state of Nevada, he was one of the most visible and helped Hillary Clinton win the state of Nevada,” Tarkanian told me a week ago.

Heller had been quiet about his presidential vote – and whether or not he exercised his Nevada-only option of “none-of-these-candidates.” This week, however, the Nevada Independent reported Heller had, in fact, voted for Trump.

“’Cause he was the best candidate on the ballot,” Heller told me today. “There was no way I could vote for Hillary Clinton, and clearly there were a number of people in the state of Nevada that felt the same way I did.”

Nevada was a rare election-night bright spot for Democrats. Clinton beat Trump here 48-percent to 45-percent.

“I would not and could not vote for Hillary Clinton. That’s why I voted for Donald Trump and I didn’t want to throw my vote away,” Heller says.

The Tarkanian campaign Tuesday said Heller’s explanation “lacks credibility.”

“He was either lying to the public then or he was lying to the public now, and either way his deceit is unacceptable to the voters of Nevada,” Tarkanian said today in a statement.

Heller says he has a good working relationship with the President but also says he does not hesitate to stand up to him when, in his view, it is in the best interests of Nevada. Case in point: health care, when both Heller and Governor Brian Sandoval said cuts in GOP Obamacare repeals would hurt too many low-income residents.

Heller, one of a handful of pivotal Republicans, voted to allow debate to proceed on one measure, but later voted against a straight Obamacare repeal. In the end, he voted for what was known as a “skinny repeal,” which was a slimmed-down version whose centerpiece was a removal of the ACA’s individual mandate.

“The only reason that ‘skinny’ bill didn’t include Medicaid was because of me,” Heller says.

A sitting Congressman, Governor Sandoval appointed Heller to finish John Ensign’s term in 2011, who won his own term outright in 2012. He says his growing Senate seniority is a benefit.

“The only reason Yucca Mountain isn’t in Nevada today is because of me,” Heller told me. “That thing would have been started with this administration six months ago and they would have had the funding already,” he says, offering himself as a barrier through which Trump's White House must pass.

The Trump administration wants to restart the currently mothballed nuclear waste dump which sits 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

My conversation with Senator Heller happened before President Trump’s Tuesday press conference in which Trump walked back Monday’s measured statement and said “both sides” were to blame for the violence over the weekend in Charlottesville.

“You would think in this country we would be far beyond some of this bigotry and racism that we experienced over the weekend,” Heller told me earlier Tuesday. “I can’t denounce it in harsher terms how much I disagree with these groups and organizations. They have no reason to be in this country.”

Nevada was not part of the Confederacy, but I asked Heller what should happen with Confederate statues, a flash point this past weekend in Virginia and which remain controversial symbols throughout America’s South.

“This isn’t a western issue. This is a southern issue and I think they ought to decide that question for themselves. Let the states go state-by-state, and if they do believe these statues ought to be replaced they ought to be able to make that decision,” Heller said.

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