Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, then-Sen. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada was in a unique position: he was literally the only Republican senator up for re-election in a state Donald Trump lost.
The GOP incumbent could’ve moderated his public image and run as a centrist, independent voice, or he could move to the right and position himself as a Donald Trump toady. In 2016, Heller eyed the former over the latter: the Nevadan opposed Trump’s presidential candidacy and donated to charity a contribution he’d received from his party’s presidential nominee.
But as regular readers know, as 2018 drew closer, Heller switched gears, aligned himself with the president, declared his home state “Trump country,” and campaigned alongside Trump, telling the president at one rally, “I think everything you touch turns to gold.”
Trump, in turn, told Nevadans that he had “no better partner” than Dean Heller.
Two weeks later, Heller lost by five points.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported yesterday that the president hasn’t forgotten what transpired, and he blamed Heller’s loss on the senator having been “extraordinarily hostile” toward him during the 2016 race.
“What happened with Dean Heller is, I tried for him,” Trump said during a sit-down with regional reporters in the Oval Office. But he said hard-core voter base “did not believe me. They wouldn’t go for him.”
Trump accused Heller of leaving the impression that he had voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016…. “I just could never get my base excited on him,” Trump said, before he added, “I like him a lot.”
Told about Trump’s comments, Heller responded, “This president called me that day before the election and said I was going to win by five points. Now all of sudden he has a different spin on that. Not surprising. I think America’s used to that.”
The importance of this has less to do with what transpired in Nevada, and more to do with what’s likely to happen in 2020.
From Trump World’s perspective, Heller’s loss poses a party-wide challenge: Republicans saw a GOP incumbent in a competitive state embrace Trump, vote with Trump, praise Trump, and campaign with Trump, and lose anyway. Indeed, it wasn’t especially close.
And this makes the president’s pitch ahead of next year’s elections that much trickier. To hear the White House tell it, Republicans really only have one realistic path to victory: rally the GOP base by standing with Trump, who in turn, will stand by you and carry you across the finish line.
Heller’s loss, however, exposed the weakness of the argument. It’s a safe bet others in the party noticed.
All of which makes it necessary for Trump to reflect on the Nevada race months after the fact, blame Heller, and insist the former senator would’ve prevailed if he’d supported Trump even more.
Common sense suggests otherwise.