James DeHaven Reno Gazette Journal
Published 5:50 PM EDT Oct 22, 2018
The race that could shift control of Congress pits a relatively unknown Southern Nevada Democrat against an incumbent Northern Nevada Republican who, critics contend, is too well known to be trusted.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has often been called the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election this fall.
That’s in part because he’s the only Republican Senator protecting a seat in a state won by Hillary Clinton. It’s also due to the fact that his opponents have spent the past several months relentlessly replaying every inconsistency and perceived policy reversal in his long and varied political career.
Democratic nominee Jacky Rosen’s effort to paint Heller as a poll-testing flip-flopper have been aided by staggering sums of campaign cash and media attention. But also, most visibly, by an alliterative catchphrase and a bright orange inflatable stick figure flapping around in the desert wind.
“Senator Spineless,” the googly eyed Heller stand-in at the center of a half-dozen Rosen attack ads, “bends with the political winds” and “is not standing up for Nevada.”
Instead, he’s propped up by little more than hot air and a penchant for taking President Donald Trump’s orders on health care, immigration and polarizing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Health care, especially, is at the heart of such attacks.
Heller has been beset by a by a series of high-profile reversals on repealing and replacing Obamacare — an effort he at first supported, then opposed, then supported again.
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Rosen has dined out on that waffling, regularly rallying supporters around calls to “repeal and replace” Heller and unwind the “fraudulent” GOP tax reform package he supported that’s helped hamstring Obama’s sweeping 2010 health care bill.
The 58-year-old senator hasn’t taken any of it lightly, dismissing assaults over his health care record as “phony politics” and hitting back early and often with attacks on Rosen’s resume.
All the while, the pair have swapped places in the polls at a dizzying rate, even though the contest remains in a statistical dead heat.
Heller, for his part, has rarely sounded rattled by the rollercoaster campaign.
In public, he cultivates the image of a grizzled political veteran, often emphasizing the fact that he’s never lost a campaign and all but dismissing the idea that his first loss could come at the hands of a rookie congresswoman like Rosen.
“All my races, at this point, are neck-and-neck,” he cooly told reporters after a campaign event in Reno last month. “We get into October and races have a tendency of breaking. Fortunately, all of my mine have broken my way.
“I believe all campaigns are about the future. Right now, (Rosen’s) campaigning about the past.”
Heller was born in Castro Valley, Calif., but raised alongside five siblings in Carson City.
A two-sport athlete at Carson High School, he served a Mormon mission in Florida before attending Brigham Young University.
He met and married his wife, Lynne, while attending business school at the University of Southern California; joining a wealthy family that helped make him a multimillionaire. The pair have four children together: Drew, Emmy, Harris and Hilary.
After graduating from USC in 1985, Heller traded on the Pacific Stock Exchange, then returned home to work in the Nevada treasurer’s office. Within a few years, Heller had taken up his dad’s hobby of stock-car racing, and he reportedly still tinkers with race cars at his 180-acre Smith Valley hay farm.
But he picked up a knack for political races first, launching his inaugural bid for office in 1990, when he was still a 30-year-old state office staffer.
He won that and eight other general election campaigns he’s entered since, including a few nail-biters.
Heller was re-elected to serve in the Assembly in 1992, but left the post to launch a successful bid for the Secretary of State’s office in 1994. He cruised through three terms in that post before winning Republican Jim Gibbons’ former U.S. House seat in 2006. Heller was re-elected to the office in 2008 and 2010.
Then, in 2011, Heller was appointed to replace scandal-plagued Republican John Ensign in the Senate. He won his election to the seat in 2012, and has since helped author popular, high-profile legislation to help military veterans find health care, housing and jobs.
Heller has also touted his efforts to overhaul the tax code, improve the federal gun background check system and bolster school safety.
Lately, he’s campaigned on his staunch opposition to President Donald Trump’s controversially revived push to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain — a remote federal dumping site about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
It’s one of the few remaining areas of friction between himself and a president he publicly snubbed as recently as two years ago.
Warming to Trump
In October 2016, Heller joined several Nevada Republicans who turned against Trump after the Washington Post revealed vulgar comments Trump had made about sexually assaulting women in a 2005 conversation with the then-host of “Access Hollywood.” He later parted ways with Trump over an ill-fated plan to ditch Obamacare.
Since then, the 58-year-old Republican has worked hard to realign himself with a president who he was once said he was “99 percent against.”
It seems to have worked.
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In March, Trump went out of his way to bump a pro-Trump insurgent candidate out of Heller’s primary election race. In September, Trump lauded Heller as “tremendous supporter,” lavishing praise on Nevada’s senior senator one year after publicly threatening Heller over his stance against the administration’s Obamacare repeal plan.
Detractors take that as yet more evidence of Heller’s willingness to stake out policy stances according to shifting political winds.
Supporters see Trump’s accolades as Heller’s reward for his continued commitment to cutting taxes, lowering health care costs and securing the border — three core tenants of the president’s America First agenda that remain very popular among the senator’s Republican constituents.
The hubbub surrounding Heller’s embrace of Trump is nothing new for the senator, who’s been around long enough to pick up critics on both sides of the political aisle.
Toward the start of his nearly 30-year career in politics, he was panned by Republicans for violating party orthodoxy on issues such as abortion and collective bargaining.
Today, he’s pummeled by Democrats who accuse him of slavishly adhering to Trump’s agenda, even in cases where it might’ve looked like he wouldn’t.
Take Heller’s shifting stances on health care, the biggest campaign cudgel Rosen has so far used against him.
Heller favored repealing Obamacare in 2015. Two years later, he came out against the GOP’s plan to roll back the landmark health care bill. He has since renewed promises to repeal the legislation, most recently at a closed-door GOP lunch event in Las Vegas.
Video of Heller’s press conference with Sandoval in June 2017 (via The Nevada Independent):
Heller has sent similarly mixed messages on Planned Parenthood, telling attendees at an April 2017 town hall event that he would “protect” the nonprofit women’s health organization. The statement marked an apparent reversal for Heller, who has twice voted to pull funding for the group.
His positions on immigration have also been somewhat elastic.
Heller in May did not directly answer the RGJ’s questions about whether he would vote against the DREAM act, a long-sought immigration reform that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
He said efforts to beef up border security should come before providing those deportation protections because “both sides have to give a little bit.”
He voted against 2010 version of the DREAM act and in 2012 called it a “backdoor amnesty” program. Then, later that same year, he appeared to warm to the concept, explaining there should be a pathway to citizenship for some of those brought here illegally.
It’s all surfaced in the campaign ads, where Heller’s been portrayed as a flip-flopper willing to say anything to get re-elected.
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He’s also come under fire for, among other things, running an unlicensed hay farm and hiring his son to serve as a campaign business consultant.
More recently, Heller’s been slammed for referring to sexual misconduct allegations leveled at Justice Kavanaugh as a “hiccup” in the judge’s fraught confirmation process. He later clarified that he did not believe sexual assault allegations of any kind are a hiccup. Early this month, he voted to confirm the divisive judge.
When it comes time to take sides on such contentious issues, those who know Heller say he’s not thinking about getting re-elected.
“I think he’s a gut-tester, more than a poll-tester,” said Greg Ferraro, a Reno-based Republican political consultant and longtime friend of the senator. “He’s willing to say, ‘look at my record, you may not like all of it, but I’m independent, like Nevada.’”
Heller’s responded to attacks on his record with attacks of his own questioning Rosen’s oft-touted business resume, her relative lack of legislative experience and her alleged coziness with California political patrons.
The messaging seems to have worked.
Three weeks ahead of Election Day, Heller has pulled into a narrow lead over Rosen in most surveys. That’s a big change from last month, when the deep split over Trump, coupled with Nevada’s increasingly Democrat-friendly political map, saw some label Heller as the underdog in his Senate re-election campaign.
Outside observers tend to agree the race will come down to turnout.
Some think Rosen and other Democrats will ride a “blue wave” of anti-Trump enthusiasm to victory next month. Others suspect that wave will have lost its momentum by the time the polls open, giving Heller every chance to cap off yet another hard-fought campaign victory.
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It’s unlikely that Heller’s listening the noises coming from either side, said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Heller confidant and adviser.
Heller, he said, is going to stick to his own playbook, one that has historically appealed to the independent and undecided voters who tend to decide hotly contested federal campaigns.
“This kind of thing doesn’t bother Dean Heller at all,” Ernaut said. “Senator Heller has always benefited from support from independents and conservative Democrats.
“He’s been in a lot of tough, close races and won them all. He doesn’t get nervous, doesn’t get anxious.”
Nevadans head to the polls for a general election scheduled on Nov. 6.
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