WASHINGTON — With speculation swirling about a possible Cabinet appointment, Dean Heller, the only Senate Republican to lose re-election, may still have some time remaining in his career in public service.
But for now, Heller appears content to head back to Nevada to recharge with family, friends and grandchildren.
He gave a farewell speech in the Senate last week, capping nearly 30 years in elected public office. His last day in office is Jan. 3.
Despite rumors of a possible Cabinet role, he’s uncertain about what he plans to do in the near future, except return to his hay farm and his wife, Lynne.
“My wife grew almost 500 tons of hay this year herself,” Heller said. “She said she needs help.”
Heller, in a wide-ranging interview with the Review-Journal, said he was not actively seeking a position within the Trump administration but would not close the door on the possibility of accepting an appointment.
When asked if he would accept a Cabinet position, including one at the Interior Department, Heller said, “I don’t have an answer for that question.”
That was two days before Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his resignation, and President Donald Trump said the former Montana congressman would serve until the end of the year.
Heller, 58, is one of several former and current lawmakers under consideration, according to news reports; another is Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist whose clients included oil and gas industry firms.
Since the Zinke announcement, Heller has made no public remarks about speculation he is interested in the job.
‘Never say never’
In the interview last week, Heller looked back on nearly 30 years of public service in the Assembly, as Nevada secretary of state, in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Senate.
Heller said he would not rule out another run for elected office. “Never say never.”
And he remained mum on whether he would accept an appointment or serve the public in some capacity. For now, he plans to reunite with his family after years of commuting from Nevada to Washington on a weekly basis, and spend time with three grandchildren.
“I’ll be able to make up for lost time,” Heller said.
A former stockbroker who received a degree from the University of Southern California, Heller is the son of an automobile mechanic and a public school cafeteria worker.
He grew up in Carson City, where he eventually jumped into politics, winning a seat in the Assembly in 1990.
Heller didn’t lose a political race until Nov. 6, when he was defeated by freshman Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, who outraised and outspent him and rode a “blue wave” into office.
“I accept the results and how this all played out,” Heller said, noting that Democrats were energized.
“The enthusiasm gap was strong,” he said.
And the state has changed. When he was secretary of state, Heller said, Republicans outnumbered Democrats. Now, there are roughly 80,000 more registered Democrats.
Heller said the state electorate has changed as well, with more party-line voting.
“One of the most significant changes I’ve seen in Nevada is political tribalism,” Heller said.
The Trump effect
Pundits had termed Heller the most-endangered Republican seeking re-election because of Trump’s low popularity numbers, historic midterm election trends and Hillary Clinton winning the state in the 2016 presidential election.
The race was considered a “toss-up” until Rosen won with 50.4 percent of the vote.
Heller lost despite help by Trump, who campaigned for the senator in Nevada with stops in Las Vegas and Elko.
Nationally, Trump’s divisive rhetoric and unpopularity was seen as a drag on Republican candidates in suburbs — particularly with women and college-educated voters — but the president energized rural voters.
Heller had kept an arm’s distance from Trump in 2016, and his relationship with the newly elected president was strained early over Senate plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion.
Heller stood with Gov. Brian Sandoval in protecting the state’s Medicaid expansion, but pivoted to Trump and bills to “repeal and replace” the ACA after the president famously said to news cameras that Heller “wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?”
Rosen’s campaign used the video clip in TV ads to highlight what Heller’s opponent termed a flip-flop.
“This race was always going to be very close. I don’t think Heller got much advantage from his ACA repeal opposition,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP political strategist.
Looking back, Heller would not say whether Trump hurt or helped his campaign. “That’s for someone else.”
But the senator said the president’s rallies in Las Vegas and Elko were the “highlight” of his campaign.
“The electricity that was in the air at the rallies that I attended with him,” Heller said, “it was the best time of the campaign.”
Heller said to walk into a room with 20,000 people in Las Vegas, with 10,000 waiting outside, “was nothing I ever experienced before in 30 years of politics.”
Two low points
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., credits Heller with co-sponsoring 100 pieces of legislation that became law.
Heller was instrumental in reforms in veterans health care and benefits, tax law and banking.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., thanked Heller for working with the Nevada congressional delegation on state-specific issues, including ongoing efforts to prevent the federal government from shipping nuclear waste to Nevada for permanent storage at Yucca Mountain.
Heller said he has “a lot of confidence in our delegation. I think they will continue to fight back and push back.” He said Rosen and Cortez Masto are well-positioned in the battle.
The outgoing lawmaker said there were two lows during his time in the Senate: the “great recession,” when home prices and the economy crumbled in Nevada, “and of course, Oct. 1.”
Heller, along with other elected officials, visited hospitals and talked with law enforcement officers and first responders, pitching in where they could to help the scores of wounded and loved ones of the 58 people who died in the mass shooting.
“It was a terrible, terrible time for Nevada,” he said of that October day a year ago, “and there are just things I’ll never forget.”