U.S. Sen. Dean Heller on Wednesday played down any notion that Nevada might suffer much from a loss of political power when U.S. Sen. Harry Reid retires.
Heller, R-Nev., said the same worries were expressed three decades ago when U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., retired, only to be replaced by Reid, D-Nev., who won his first Senate election in 1986.
“There was concern there would be a big void,” Heller said. “And certain people filled those shoes, Senator Reid being one of them. He did a great job. So it’s the responsibility of us that are the remainder of the delegation to step up.”
Heller also weighed in on the 2016 election to replace Reid, saying whoever wins the election — Republican or Democrat — will surely have survived a crucible and will serve Nevada well.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a tough race to replace him,” Heller said. “And it’s my opinion that whoever comes out of that race will be a strong partner and will do everything that they can to continue the legacy of both him and Paul Laxalt and others that have served before.”
Heller’s comments came during a news conference after he met with a veterans advisory panel in Las Vegas.
After Reid retires, Heller will become Nevada’s senior senator, having served since May 2011, when he was appointed to replace U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. Ensign resigned amid an ethics investigation and after having an affair.
Heller won election to the Senate in 2012, defeating then U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., in a close race. Previously, he served in the House from January 2007 until his Senate appointment.
Things have “changed dramatically” for Heller during the past year, he noted. He went from being a junior senator in the minority party with no “A-plus” committees, to serving in the majority party on several powerful committees, he said.
Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 2014 election and Reid was demoted to minority leader. Heller, meanwhile, won seats on the powerful Senate Finance Committee and panels overseeing commerce, science and transportation; banking, housing and urban affairs; and veterans affairs. He also is on a Special Committee on Aging.
“That changes my life dramatically back in Washington, D.C.,” Heller said of his growing political power. “I’ll take on the issues that Senator Reid and I worked on.”
He’ll continue to fight to ensure Yucca Mountain doesn’t become a nuclear waste dump, for example, he said.
“Yucca’s dead and we’re going to move on,” Heller said, using Reid’s favorite phrase about the repository project.
Reid, during his 1986 campaign for the Senate, was already fighting to prevent the U.S. government from designating Yucca as the best site to bury nuclear waste. At the time, Yucca was among several finalists in a site selection process.
Heller said the 2016 open seat election is likely to be brutal.
“I think it’s just going to be rough and tumble,” he said. “And the best candidate will come out and will serve Nevada well.”
Heller didn’t make any predictions but said the race will be much like his 2012 contest: It will happen in a presidential election year, which usually favors Democrats in Nevada; it’s an open seat; and lots of money will be spent.
“It was always going to be a competitive race whether Senator Reid was part of it or whether it’s an open seat,” he said.
Reid already has endorsed former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto to run and replace him. She has not yet said whether she will compete, but is expected to get into the race as the Democratic favorite.
Heller didn’t name any favored Republicans contenders, but suggested the GOP has a good chance to win Reid’s seat.
“I think we’ll have an opportunity to make this a competitive race,” Heller said after making a verbal flub, saying Republicans “have a dearth of good candidates” when he meant a wealth of good candidates.
Previously, Heller has said he wants his close colleague, GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, to run for Reid’s seat. Sandoval has dismissed the idea, saying he wants to serve out his full four-year second term after winning re-election last year.
Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers, a Republican, is the only announced candidate so far. Other GOP prospects include former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, current Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, Nevada Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson of Las Vegas, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei and Treasurer Dan Schwartz. U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said Tuesday he doesn’t plan to run, but both he and Sandoval will likely continue to be pressured to jump into the race.
Besides Cortez Masto, other Democratic prospects include U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, former Secretary of State Ross Miller, former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores of Las Vegas, former Treasurer Kate Marshall, and Steve Sisolak, chairman of the Clark County Commission.
Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.