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On the comeback trail, a candidate shows what today's GOP is all about

What does it take to run for statewide office as a Republican? Even in a state that's becoming increasingly "blue"? Heller offers an amazing case study.
Image: Dean Heller
Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller speaks with the media after announcing a bid for governor of Nevada on Sept. 20, 2021, in Las Vegas.John Locher / AP

Nevada's Dean Heller found himself in a unique position in 2018: There were plenty of Republican incumbents seeking re-election to statewide office, but the then-U.S. senator was the only one running in a state Hillary Clinton won two years earlier.

With this in mind, it was hardly surprising when Heller tried to position himself as a relative GOP moderate. For example, when Donald Trump launched his presidential bid in 2015, the Nevada Republican donated the campaign donations he'd received from Trump to charity, assuring voters he was "vehemently opposed" to Trump's candidacy. Heller went on to describe the future president as a man who "denigrates human beings."

But during Trump's term, the senator decided he might be better off politically if he shifted dramatically to the right. And so, Heller embraced Trump's agenda, even voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite the drastic impact it would have had on Nevada families.

As Election Day 2018 neared, Heller largely avoided difficult questions — Nevada Democrats started calling him "Hiding Heller" — and cozied up to Trump in pitiful ways. "I think everything you touch turns to gold," the then-senator told the then-president at a campaign rally in late October.

It didn't work. Though polls showed him with modest leads, Democrat Jacky Rosen beat him by five points.

This week, Heller launched a comeback bid, kicking off a 2022 gubernatorial campaign. As Nevada gets a little more Democratic — President Joe Biden won the state by a slightly larger margin than Clinton did four years earlier, and Democrats control all of the state's levers of power — will voters see the version of Heller who "vehemently opposed" Trump or the version who became a Trump sycophant?

We didn't have to wait too long for an answer. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported today:

Dean Heller says he knows who the president is. He just won't name that person — no matter how the question is asked. "I still know who the president is, but I do believe we have a problem with elections," Heller said in a 30-minute interview Tuesday at the Washoe County Republican headquarters.

The article added that the former senator "repeatedly declined — during his kickoff on Monday and in Tuesday's interview — to say that Joe Biden had been elected in 2020."

For Heller, the transformation isn't limited to election conspiracy theories. The Nevada Independent reported this week:

Asked if he would support a law like Texas' that allows private citizens to sue people who facilitate an abortion after six weeks of gestation, Heller said "I like what Texas did." Polls consistently show Nevadans support abortion rights by significant margins.... "As governor, I'll get the most conservative abortion laws that we can have in this state, regardless with who's controlling the legislature at the time," he said.

What does it take to run for statewide office as a Republican? Even in a state that's becoming increasingly "blue"? Heller offers an amazing case study.