LAS VEGAS – Democrats hoping to take control of the U.S. Senate in November believe one of their best chances to pick up a seat this year lies in battleground Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is the only Republican running for re-election in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
Heller, who has spent nearly three decades in public office, is expected to face Democrat Jacky Rosen, a first-term congresswoman, in what could be one of the closest Senate battles in November.
Heller says it will be a close election but he’ll pull it off.
“I’m as confident going into this race as the other nine races that I’ve gone into. I’ll have to work hard. Nevada’s a purple state, so every race is tough.”
Democrats, who are anticipating a “blue wave” across the country driven by opposition to President Donald Trump, have criticized Heller as a one-time critic of Trump’s who is now tied to him.
Heller spent much of the last year facing criticism from both the left and the right for his mixed support for Trump and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
He has since improved his relationship with the president after supporting a pared-down repeal bill and helping craft the Republican tax overhaul.
Trump, in turn, gave the senator a big boost in March by persuading Heller’s more conservative primary challenger Danny Tarkanian to drop out of the race.
Heller said he did not ask the White House or Trump to get involved and was not part of those discussions. Though, he noted that the president has probably saved him $3 million to $5 million.
“I was pretty confident that we would have prevailed in the primary, it would have just taken a lot of money to get there,” Heller said. “The president did me a big favor.”
Tarkanian’s exit spares Heller from having to run as far to the right as he otherwise would, though he can’t alienate Trump’s strong supporters, University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor David Damore said.
Heller’s campaign this week tied his re-election to Trump’s survival, releasing a fundraising email that referenced the efforts of California billionaire Tom Steyer, who in addition to pledging to spend $2 million in Nevada to oust Heller and prevent Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt from becoming governor, is running ads around the country pushing to impeach Trump.
Democrats only want to take control of the Senate to impeach the president, Heller’s campaign email said, adding “That’s why it’s up to us to defend the Senate majority.”
Rosen, when asked if she felt Trump should be impeached, said “No one is above the law, not even the president. But before anybody talks about that I think that we really need to see what the special counsel is going to do, what they’re going to recommend and let them finish their investigation. That’s what I’d like to focus on first.”
Rosen said that while she talks to voters about Trump and his administration, “the most important thing that I think people can know about me is that I’m going to give them something to vote for instead of just someone to just vote against.”
Her election to the House in 2016 was one in a series of key Democratic wins in Nevada driven by labor and Latino groups and a political machine built by longtime Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, who left office at the end of that year.
Democrats looking to build on that momentum are working to keep their lead among the state’s registered voters, but Republicans are gearing up to defend their turf and build a bigger operation than in past years.
The Republican National Committee has deployed two dozen paid staffers across the state, along with more than 1,000 volunteers who are knocking on doors, making phone calls and working to register GOP voters.
The party has been making steady gains among registered voters and is focusing on an economic message touting the tax cut law and job growth, RNC Nevada state director Dan Coats said.
Rosen has been outraising Heller in recent months but still lags the $4.4 million in his campaign account. Rosen’s most recent reports show she started April with about $3.5 million.
Both parties are banking on higher-than-usual turnout in November because of close races for two open congressional seats currently held by Democrats and an open contest for governor, with term-limited Republican Brian Sandoval on his way out.
Some voters say they’re willing to cross party lines.
Julie Brown, a 52-year-old Republican teacher from Henderson who didn’t vote for Trump, said she’s not sure about Rosen but she knows she won’t support Heller.
“He’s wishy-washy,” Brown said as she loaded groceries into her car outside a supermarket. “I just feel like somebody that’s in that position needs to stand up for what they believe in.”
Ed Castillo, a 52-year-old independent, said he’s not sure who he’ll support, but he wants to see someone find a way to address rising insurance premiums and lost coverage that he’s seen friends experience in the wake of the Affordable Care Act.
Castillo, who works at the Tropicana hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip and supported Trump in 2016, said he doesn’t care if a candidate pledges to repeal and replace the health law, as some conservatives have demanded of Heller.
“I just want to get it fixed,” he said.
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