RENO, Nev. — Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is struggling to get his messaging straight. And it's becoming a problem, because Heller — who won his last election by just 1 percentage point — is one of the most vulnerable GOP senators trying to keep his seat in the 2018 midterm elections.
His public waffling on repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting off Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood has left both Democrats and conservative Republicans ready to pounce on the GOP senator.
Nevada is one of the only battleground states that Hillary Clinton won during the 2016 presidential election and it also elected the state’s first female and America’s first Latina senator in November.
At this point, Heller’s most likely general election challenger is first-term Democrat Rep. Jacky Rosen, a former synagogue president and software developer who was able to take Nevada’s 3rd District from Republican hands in 2016.
But before he moves into the general election, Heller must make it through what is expected to be a bruising primary against Danny Tarkanian, a conservative businessman who has aligned himself closely with President Trump.
Heller is struggling to figure out how vigorously to support a president who is still popular with his base, but has low approval ratings overall.
“He doesn’t know which way he has to go, I mean really. I have said to people ‘it’s no fun being Dean these days,’” said Pam duPre, a former executive director of the Washoe County Democratic Party. Washoe County includes Reno, Nev. and is the state’s swing county. “I keep picturing one of those air-blown wiggly figures outside the tire shops and it’s like ‘oh there’s Dean Heller.’ He’s in a tough spot and I have absolutely no sympathy for him.”
Heller became a central figure in the unsuccessful Republican-led effort to repeal Obamacare because he originally said he would not vote for the bill advanced by Senate leadership. Nevada expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and hundreds of thousands of people started receiving coverage. The original bill introduced by GOP leadership would have curbed that program and the Nevada's GOP governor opposed any efforts to undo the expansion.
During a marathon series of votes on health care last month, Heller opposed the leadership bill and it was was scrapped for lack of Republican support. Heller also voted against a straight Obamacare repeal bill that House and Senate Republicans had passed in 2015 only to have then-president Barack Obama veto it. That bill also failed.
But Heller did vote for a narrower repeal bill — nicknamed “skinny repeal” — that was intended just to get a bill through the Senate to kick off negotiations with Republicans in the House. That bill also died in the Senate as three other Republicans voted against it.
The bill he voted for didn’t touch Medicaid — which Heller was concerned about protecting — but that bill was not going to be the final version. Instead, if it had passed, it would have moved to conference with the more conservative House. The final bill that came out of conference could have ended up rolling back the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid.
Conservatives said that Heller’s public statements and votes against two of the three repeal efforts, including the simple repeal — which he had voted for in 2015 — were not enough.
“The biggest problem that he is gonna have is Obamacare, as you know Republicans have been running on 'repeal Obamacare' for seven years and then when it becomes time it’s like, ‘Well they can’t get it done,’” said David Buell who is the former chair of Washoe County GOP. “He’s gotta stay off that message and get on the positive things he’s done as he’s been a senator. He’s been a big supporter of the military and veterans.”
“It will impact him significantly in the primary,” Sam Kumar, who also held the top spot in Washoe County’s Republican party, told USA TODAY. Kumar would have liked to repeal Obamacare in its entirety. Kumar also would like a more conservative senator than Heller to win, but acknowledges Tarkanian could have a hard time in a general election and thinks it’s most important to keep the seat in Republican hands.
Heller defended the way he handled the health care vote in an interview with USA TODAY.
“I did exactly what I said I was going to do on health care and that was to protect Medicaid expansion here in the state of Nevada and at the same time get rid of the mandates — those portions of Obamacare that I disagreed with,” Heller said “You know, maybe the message out there isn’t clear enough, but I’ll continue to beat this drum: that I did exactly what I said I was going to do on health care.”
The whole back-and-forth played out publicly over a series of weeks that included a Trump-aligned super PAC taking out ads against him, only to pull them after they said Heller came back to the negotiating table. Later, at an event with Republican senators, President Trump warned Heller could lose his Senate seat as the Nevada senator sat next to him and smiled.
“I think one of the most awkward times I’ve seen Heller was in the picture of him sitting next to Trump and Trump kind of giving him the thumb and saying ‘you still want to remain a senator don’t you?’” said Chris Wicker, a former vice-chair of the Nevada Democratic Party. “I mean, how insulting is that? And (Heller) just looked lost and I have a feeling that is going to find its way into campaign ads.”
Heller told USA TODAY that moment was “just President Trump being President Trump.”
After Heller voted for the "skinny repeal," a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it would spend seven figures to defend Heller, according to The Nevada Independent.
Heller also muddied his stance on Planned Parenthood during a town hall event where he said he would “protect” the women’s health organization after a constituent asked if he would support the organization.
Republicans have been trying to pass legislation that would bar the group from getting any federal funding because it is the largest abortion provider in the country. They've attempted to cut off the Medicaid reimbursements in various pieces of legislation, including the "skinny repeal" that Heller voted for.
But Heller went on to repeat a series of talking points that contradicted his previous statement.
Heller said he didn’t feel taxpayer money should fund abortions, but Planned Parenthood — and all other groups — are already barred from using federal money for abortions. They are only reimbursed for non-abortion reproductive health services.
“Dean Heller campaigned on a promise that he would defund Planned Parenthood and then he got in front of a wild town hall … and then he promised he would protect the funding of Planned Parenthood,” Tarkanian told USA TODAY. “He keeps going back and forth based on whatever way the political winds are blowing.”
The Democratic challenger also faults Heller for changing his tune. “I think he’s handled it poorly all along but suddenly when he got a challenger in me, he was all of a sudden maybe not going to defund Planned Parenthood, maybe not gonna vote for the repeal,” Rosen said. “Now when the spotlight is on him he suddenly has a change of heart one way and then of course he voted for the repeal.”
“It’s been a tough first six months of the Trump administration and the 115th Congress, that’s the bad news," said Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican who represents the 2nd District of Nevada, the same seat Heller had when he was in the House. "The good news is there’s time to consolidate his base and work on those things that he knows work from his experience here.”
Amodei said Heller will have to hew close to the president. “I think if you’re gonna win a Senate race in Nevada you’re going to have to have the support of the (Trump) administration and that kind of gets back to consolidating your base.”
Tarkanian — who is the son of the legendary University of Nevada Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian — has aligned himself closely with Trump.
After Tarkanian announced he was challenging Heller, the senator — nine months after the 2016 election — told The Nevada Independent he had, in fact, voted for Trump, an issue about which he had previously been evasive. Heller had said at one point last year he “vehemently oppose(d) our nominee," according to The National Review.
Heller pushed back when USA TODAY asked him how he planned to navigate a relationship with the president whom he has criticized.
“First of all, I don’t think I’ve had specific criticisms of the president himself. I may have disagreed on issues,” Heller said. “I know that’s going to be the push from my opponent — that (Trump and I are) not in line. But the bottom line is, we’re together much more often than we are apart.” Heller listed Trump’s stance on rolling back regulations and his Supreme Court and Cabinet nominations as examples of things he supported.
It is not clear if a close embrace of the president would be beneficial in the general election.
“I think that politicians make a mistake when they go far right or far left" because once you get to the general election you have to be more moderate, said Frankie Sue Del Papa, a Democrat and the state’s former attorney general and secretary of state. “The fact that Sen. Heller will have to move right will not serve him well in the general election.”
Multiple Republicans expressed hope to USA TODAY that Heller’s hefty war chest and experienced staff may be enough to supplement his muddled messaging.
“The one advantage I think Sen Heller has … he has a very formidable machine in place here,” former Washoe County GOP chair Buell said.