Sen. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada is in a unique position: he’s literally the only Republican senator up for re-election this year in a state Donald Trump lost.
And that in turn left Heller with a choice ahead of his closely watched re-election bid. He could’ve moderated his public image – as many Senate Democrats in “red” states have done – and told Nevadans that he’s a centrist, independent voice on Capitol Hill committed to working in bipartisan fashion. Or Heller could’ve moved to the right, rallied the GOP base, and positioned himself as a Donald Trump toady.
Two years ago, it looked like the senator was poised to go with the former. As Election Day 2016 drew closer, Heller not only announced his “vehement” opposition to Trump’s candidacy, he also gave to charity a contribution he’d received from his party’s presidential nominee.
But as Election Day 2018 nears, Heller has decided he’s better off in a more sycophantic position. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:
“Welcome to Trump country!” the senator said as he walked onto the stage, introduced warmly by the person Heller would not admit he voted for until nearly seven months into Trump’s presidency.
“Mr. President, this is not the swamp. Now, Mr. President, you know a little bit about gold. In fact, I think everything you touch turns to gold.”
This comes after a session of Congress in which the Nevada Republican voted with Trump more than 92% of the time – easily the most of any senator from a state Hillary Clinton carried in the last election.
At Saturday’s event, the president was quick to return the favor, telling locals, “There’s no better partner that I had in Washington than Dean Heller.”
Shouldn’t this be the kiss of death in a state that backed the Democratic ticket in 2016, 2012, and 2008? Not necessarily.
In fact, by some measures, Heller’s gambit is working: FiveThirtyEight considers the GOP incumbent a slight favorite to win another term. And in case this isn’t obvious, the chances of a Democratic Senate effectively disappear if Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) comes up short in her race against Heller.
Slate’s Isaac Chotiner spoke to the Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston the other day about why the race Democrats thought might be easy isn’t turning out that way.
CHOTINER: Where do you think the race currently stands, and why?
RALSTON: The Senate race is within the margin of error, one way or another. There are a couple reasons it is so close. One is that the Nevada electorate is as polarized as the national electorate, and so the names are less important than party identification. The other is that Dean Heller has done everything he can to try to lose the race, and the reason he is still in it is that Jacky Rosen is so unknown, and they have been able to create doubts about her because she is so unknown.
Most of the recent polling shows Heller ahead. Watch this space.