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Pence’s push for Heller narrows Tarkanian’s path to victory

Vice President Mike Pence’s recent trip to Las Vegas signals the White House is backing Sen. Dean Heller’s re-election.

On Thursday, Pence offered remarks at two Air Force events, accompanied by Heller and Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Pence acknowledged Laxalt but went out of his way to praise Heller. Pence called him “a great friend of mine from our days in Congress and a tenacious advocate for everything about Nevada.”

In case anyone doubts Pence intended his visit to boost Heller, he announced his Nevada trip in a Wall Street Journal article headlined “Pence hits 2018 campaign trail.” In the article, Pence outlined a “two-step” electoral strategy. First, he would conduct initial visits and provide fundraising help. Later, President Donald Trump would host rallies for favored candidates.

It’s a stunning reversal from just seven months ago. Last June, Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval held a joint press conference announcing Heller’s opposition to GOP efforts to replace Obamacare. Heller became the 51st senator to announce opposition, which killed the bill. The America First Policies super PAC, run by former advisers to Trump, then announced it would air $1 million in ads against Heller. The super PAC pulled back, but businessman Danny Tarkanian saw an opening and launched a primary challenge.

Tarkanian began with a simple message: Heller doesn’t support the president. He would.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Heller made numerous comments that were dismissive of Trump. Combined with Republican disgust over Heller’s left-leaning or wishy-washy positions, early polls showed Tarkanian leading the race.

Polls change, though, and so has Heller’s behavior. Heller eventually voted for other Obamacare repeal measures. He then championed tax reform and stood directly behind the president at Trump’s celebratory press conference.

Tarkanian’s standing with Trump looks less certain than when he announced. Former presidential adviser Steve Bannon latched himself onto Tarkanian’s campaign. Then Bannon’s candidate in the Republican stronghold of Alabama, Roy Moore, lost his Senate race. Trump recently cut off Bannon after he helped author a tell-all book that included criticisms of the president and his family. Tarkanian’s response to the controversy emphasized his fidelity to Trump, but also that he would “welcome” Bannon’s support.

Where does Tarkanian go from here? Tarkanian insists he’s committed to his race, but he could run again for the 3rd Congressional District. Tarkanian narrowly lost to Jacky Rosen in 2016. In 2015, Tarkanian raised more than $350,000 in his first-quarter fundraising for CD3. This cycle, the top four Republican challengers for CD3 raised less than $300,000 — combined — in their first fundraising periods. In contrast, Tarkanian has raised more than $300,000 for his Senate run.

It’d be surprising if D.C. power brokers weren’t trying to get Tarkanian into that race. They might be concerned, however, that Heller’s support for Trump — and the reliability of his vote — will wane without a credible primary challenger.

There’s no doubt that Tarkanian, if elected, would be a stronger supporter of Trump than Heller. If re-elected, Heller looks poised to become Nevada’s version of John McCain.

That’s a winning message with Republican primary voters. But if you’re getting outspent 5-to-1 and the president shows support for your flip-flopping opponent, it’s going to be hard to get them to listen.

Listen to Victor Joecks discuss his columns each Monday at 9 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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