Sen. Dean Heller has a primary problem, and his name is Danny Tarkanian.
While Heller’s missteps have given Tarkanian a credible path to victory, Heller’s a long way from losing June’s GOP primary. Along with the advantage of $3.5 million in the bank, here are four things Heller could do to blunt Tarkanian’s efforts:
1. Successfully repeal or replace Obamacare. The best attack Tarkanian has against Heller is that Heller voted against repealing Obamacare. Heller even held a self-serving news conference announcing his opposition to a Senate Republican replacement bill. His grandstanding effectively killed that effort.
Heller has been inconsistent on the issue. Heller voted to repeal Obamacare in 2015, when he knew then-President Barack Obama would veto it. In 2017, knowing that President Donald Trump would sign it, he voted no on repeal.
Republican primary voters may never forgive those political sins. Many, however, would forget them if Republicans pass — and Heller votes for — an Obamacare replacement bill before the primary.
Heller touted his support of a proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy to block grant Medicaid money to the states. But voters aren’t going to give him credit for ideas that went nowhere.
2. Induce another primary challenger into the race. Giving voters more options to replace Heller makes it harder to defeat him.
As an incumbent, Heller has an established base of support. He’s been running for office in Nevada for almost 30 years, including several statewide races. He’s especially well-known in Northern Nevada.
Heller could take a page out of Harry Reid’s playbook and recruit a candidate who will take away votes from Tarkanian. Another credible conservative challenger would split the anti-Heller vote and hand Heller the nomination.
3. Gain Trump’s support. Getting Trump’s endorsement won’t be easy given Heller’s negative statements about Trump, but it’d be enormously helpful. In the crowded 2016 Nevada caucus, Trump won almost 50 percent of the vote.
Perhaps those bridges are thawing a bit.
“I want to thank Dean Heller for being here,” Trump said last month at the start of his Reno speech before the American Legion. Trump then signed a Heller co-sponsored bill that revamped the appeals process at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
4. Make the race Heller vs. Tarkanian. If the primary becomes a referendum on the incumbent, Heller’s in trouble. But having run five times unsuccessfully before, Tarkanian is far from a blank slate. His name identification, especially in Southern Nevada, will give his campaign some characteristics of an incumbent running again.
Look for Heller make do everything he can — including plenty of negative ads — to make voters think Tarkanian’s part of the political establishment, too. You’ve seen some of this already, with the Heller campaign labeling Tarkanian a “perennial candidate.”
Heller’s in a tough spot, but he can improve his chances.
Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him discuss his columns each Monday at 9 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.