LAS VEGAS — Republicans’ chances of keeping their majority in the U.S. Senate have become shakier as races in red states like Texas have tightened, but the party’s most vulnerable member insists he’s bullish about his re-election.
The Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller has faced tight races before but never lost an election. He’s now in the fight of his career to keep his Senate seat in a blue-trending state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. I’ll win,” Heller told reporters last week in Reno.
To win, he’s performing political acrobatics, aligning himself with President Donald Trump while trying to keep his distance from the scandals surrounding the president.
“Eighty percent of what this president has done has been very, very good, very positive,” Heller said. He listed the economy, low unemployment, jobs and trade among the president’s accomplishments.
“The other 20 percent … he has a reality show. I get it. It’s a reality show,” the senator said.
Heller, who once said he “vehemently” opposed Trump and returned one of his campaign donations, is set to hold his second campaign rally and fundraiser with the president Thursday and Friday in Las Vegas.
He’s formed an alliance with Trump after drawing the president’s ire last year when he held up Republican efforts to repeal former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Heller now avoids criticizing Trump and refuses to comment on his tweets, saying if he did, it would be “a full-time job and I already have one.”
When asked if Trump is an asset or liability, Heller simply mentioned Trump’s planned visit to Las Vegas and said, “I’ll be there with him.”
“As far as I’m concerned, if he’s going to be — any president, any president that comes into Nevada, I’m going to be standing with them,” Heller said. “I think that’s a plus, I think that’s a positive with any president when they come into the state.”
The president saved Heller from a costly and damaging primary battle earlier this year by persuading a further-right primary challenger, Danny Tarkanian, to drop out of the Senate race and instead seek a House seat.
Heller is now in a very tight race with Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, a first-term congresswoman who stands to benefit from a wave of Democratic and female activism fueled by opposition to Trump.
To win, Heller has to get support from nonpartisans, who make up about 21 percent of the state’s active voters, while ensuring that Republicans, including those still resentful over his past criticism of Trump, vote for him.
Among the GOP, “I think everybody was angry with the fact that Dean Heller distanced himself,” said Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, a Republican campaign consultant in Las Vegas. “But Republicans, whether you are going to hold your nose and vote for Dean Heller, whether you’re one of those Republicans, I think at the end of the day, you have to look at those core values.”
Heller’s last re-election, in 2012, was razor-thin. He had a one-point victory over Democrat Shelley Berkley, a former state lawmaker who spent 15 years in Congress and ran with more name recognition than Rosen.
Heller also won that year despite Obama winning the state by nearly seven points.
But this year “is a different environment,” said Greg Ferraro, a Reno-based Republican political consultant and public relations firm owner. “Voters are probably paying attention more than they have in the past.”
Voters on both sides of the aisle know the Nevada race is key for Democrats trying to flip control of the Senate, he said, and the key question will be whether they view the race through a national lens and make it about Trump or whether they consider Heller’s record.
Heller acknowledged as much in an August interview with the Washington Examiner, saying that if Rosen “makes it about Washington, D.C., and Donald Trump, she knows she wins.”
Rosen has hammered Heller over the president’s immigration policies, the senator’s eventual support for Republican-led plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his role in crafting the GOP tax overhaul and his backing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
“He’s spent the past year folding to President Trump instead of standing up for Nevada, and that’s why he’s going to lose,” Rosen spokesman Stewart Boss said in a statement.
While he’s aligned himself with Trump, Heller has focused his campaign on Nevada veterans, the improving economy and what he’s delivered while serving in the Senate since 2011. He’s painted his opponent as someone who sought a promotion after only six months in the House.
“She’s introducing herself to the rest of the state while he’s making the case that he’s been hard at work,” Ferraro said.
Heller has outraised Rosen so far, with $10.6 million in campaign contributions to her $9.2 million. But outside groups have poured $17 million into the race — about $10 million of which was spent to oppose Heller or support Rosen, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“At this point, we’re always neck and neck,” Heller said, noting he’s won his past nine elections and state and federal offices. “We get into October, and it has a tendency of breaking. Fortunately, first nine races have broken my way.”
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.