Nevada Senator Dean Heller, elected in 2012 with 46 percent of the vote, is widely considered the most endangered Republican incumbent in the upper chamber. Republican Presidential candidates have not won the state since 2004 and Democrats currently control three of the state’s four congressional seats, both chambers of the legislature and are poised to capture the Governor’s mansion this Fall.
If Heller’s situation was not precarious enough he also faced a primary challenge from his right from perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian who lost the GOP Senate primary in 2010 and a bid for the 3rd Congressional District in 2016. A poll last year found Tarkanian leading Heller by a not insignificant margin.
Much has changed since then. Democrats scored a win in ruby red Alabama to narrow the GOP’s Senate majority to two seats, Jeff Flake announced his retirement in Arizona and the political environment at best has not gotten much better for the GOP. Not even Trump has been immune to noticing these trends.
As a result, while Trump might not be modifying his behavior he is throwing out a lifeline to Republicans who have stuck with him at great political peril. Since bucking the President on repealing the ACA, Heller voted for the skinny repeal bill in the Senate last July and he fully supported the GOP’s tax reform efforts. On a slew of regulatory and judicial actions he has also stuck by the President.
This explains why on Friday Trump pushed out Dean Heller’s primary challenger Danny Tarkanian. Trump, via twitter, urged Tarkanian to drop out of the race so his “ally” in Dean Heller could win reelection, “Would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada, and it’s unity if . . . Dean Heller, who is doing a really good job, could run for Senate unopposed!” On Friday, Tarkanian acceded to the wish and opted to run for the competitive 3rd Congressional district.
Tarkanian said Trump’s political team suggested it Wednesday and said the White House would publicly back him if he decided to run for the House instead. Didn’t take long for Tarkanian to do the math and know going against the President would not have ended well.
This coup, despite Trump’s high-profile losses in Alabama and now likely PA-18, indicates Trump owns the grassroots and almost every Republican knows it. Going against the President still seems to have more downside than up for Republicans. Trump’s approval might be mired in the low 40’s but his approval has been buoyed by Republicans sticking by the President. Senate Republicans have even gone all in on this bet.
This puts candidates like Heller in a sticky situation trying to balance the moderate views of their state’s swing voters and Trump’s conservative base. Primary challenges would only drag endangered incumbents to the right and make it harder for them to appeal to the middle.
Democrats are dealing with the same problem. They just don’t have the benefit of having established incumbents running. But hey, they have the benefit of an energized base which is a double edged sword (just ask Republicans in Nevada and Delaware circa 2010).
Conor Lamb’s victory last week in Pennsylvania has energized a feud in the party at a time when the GOP seems to have settled on protecting their incumbents no matter their stances. It is unclear if the Democratic feud will help lead to a Tea Partyesque like wave in 2010 or see their gains fizzle due to unelectable candidates costing the party seats in the Midwest and Texas.
Time will tell. But it is clear Nevada confirms what PA-18 told us. In the closing days of the PA contest Trump rallied his supporters for Rick Saccone. The last independent survey of the contest found Saccone down six points and yet he is assured to lose by no more than less than half a point.
Combined these two events confirm Trump still owns the grassroots. Democrats revel in those knowing Republicans will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t in their dealings with Trump. But, it also shows the President still has tremendous heft and while Trump has destructive tendencies and really is a Republican In Name Only (RINO) he can still help out his adopted party. To the detriment of Democrats midterm aspirations.