Threading a needle: Heller eyes general, and hopes base follows

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (U.S. Senate)

It’s a Monday morning at 790AM Talk Now, and conservative – and that’s with a capital “C” – Kevin Wall is holding court on his daily statewide talk show.

“Will he be primaried?” Wall asked his listeners about the state’s senior U.S. Senator, who has found himself in the crosshairs of not only Democrats but the far right.

It’s not easy these days being Dean Heller, considered by some the most vulnerable Republican up for re-election in 2018.

“All the Trump people hate him, the conservatives hate him. This guy needs to go,” said a caller recently on Wall’s program.

Heller has drawn the far-right’s ire with a more nuanced approach to conservatism. His latest “sin,” according to the right: not marching in lockstep with the House to support its version of the Obamacare repeal.

“The current bill falls short,” Heller said last week in a statement, echoing the sentiment of many GOP U.S. Senators who said the House version is dead-on-arrival.

Not only Republican senators but Republican governors as well, worried that the House’s rollback of the Medicaid expansion will shove that full fiscal responsibility onto their state’s shoulders. In Nevada, that expansion brought insurance to almost 300,000 people.

“We cannot pull the rug out from under states like Nevada that expanded Medicaid and we need assurances that people with pre-existing conditions will be protected,” Heller said.

For the far right, that’s more fuel for the anti-Heller fire.

On Yucca Mountain, the mothballed nuke waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Heller has marched together with other Nevada officials as a solid “no.” Some conservatives feel Heller missed an opportunity to help the state’s economy, supporting jobs they claim the project could bring. Heller has said the better solution is to house waste in states that want it and to not transport the material across the country, risking the possibility of an accident or terrorist attack.

And the right is still smarting over the election and what Heller did – or did not – do.

“They certainly don’t like the idea he abandoned Donald J. Trump,” says Wall. “There are a lot of Trump fans here in the State of Nevada and a lot of those people hold Dean Heller, (former U.S. Senate candidate) Joe Heck, and others personally responsible for him losing the state.”

Heller was no Trump fan, offended by Trump’s talk about women, and immigrants – Mexicans in particular. Heller, throughout his Senate career, made reaching out to the Latino community a priority.

“As far as being accessible, wanting to know, he’s always there,” says Peter Guzman, the President of the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

It’s one thing to be upset at a sitting U.S. Senator. It’s another thing to mount a primary challenge, especially against an incumbent with a war chest.

“I think anybody who’s going to run against Dean in the primaries is going to have to have a lot of money,” says former Congressional candidate Danny Tarkanian, who lost his bid for the 3rd District in November against Democrat Jacky Rosen. “There aren’t a whole lot of people who can do that.”

Heller, a former Secretary of State and former U.S. Congressman, knows a thing or two about a bruising primary: he survived a 2006 challenge in the 2nd District from then conservative-darling Sharron Angle. He arrived in the U.S. Senate six years ago tomorrow, replacing Republican John Ensign, who resigned after an affair with the wife of one of Ensign’s top aides. Heller won re-election in 2012, beating Democrat Shelley Berkley.

In 2016, while other candidates were giving Trump the cold shoulder, Tarkanian wasn’t and says Heller’s distance was a mistake.

“I think anybody who understands what the GOP stands for knew that whatever you thought of Donald Trump, he was better than Hillary Clinton,” Tarkanian says.

Besides the grumbling on his right flank, he’s taking it from the other side, too. For all his Trump-distance, Democrats claim Heller has been marching largely in lockstep with the Trump agenda. The Nevada Democratic Party has been more than happy to highlight GOP primary grumbling, even sending out clips of Wall’s show.

So how vulnerable is Heller?

“I think the next three months are going to be very, very important,” says Wall, adding, “I imagine there are people that are going to be doing a lot of polling and they’re going to be doing a lot of fundraising to see if they could raise some money to primary Dean Heller.”

Which would not be easy.

But in this climate, every issue’s a landmine for a senator fighting to stay in office.

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