Republican businessman takes on Nevada's Dean Heller

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
President Trump welcomes Sen. Dean Heller before a meeting with Republican senators to discuss the health care bill, July 19, 2017. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The Senate’s most vulnerable Republican in 2018 just got a challenger from the right, the Trump-supporting businessman and frequent political candidate Danny Tarkanian.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., already faces a likely challenge on the left from Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., a freshman lawmaker who has spent the past few weeks blasting Heller’s shifting positions on the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare as “heartless.”

Tarkanian announced his decision to run on “Fox and Friends” Tuesday morning, painting Heller as an obstructionist of Trump’s agenda and saying Republicans begged him to run against him.

“Dean Heller wasn’t just one of the first Never Trumpers in Nevada, he was one of the most influential,” Tarkanian said on the show. “He actually helped Hillary Clinton win the state of Nevada.”

Tarkanian has run for office five times over the past 10 years without ever winning political office, though he has won Republican primaries.

A spokesman for Heller pointed out that Tarkanian recently lost a congressional race to Rosen, who he would likely face again if he won the primary. “He’s wasted conservatives’ time and cost the Republican Party seats up and down the ballot,” Heller spokesman Tommy Ferraro said in a statement. “If he ultimately files for U.S. Senate he will lose in the primary.”

The Republican establishment is likely to stay behind Heller, who eventually backed the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare in late July. A super-PAC aligned with Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it will be all in for Heller in a primary and the general election, the Nevada Independent reported. It’s unclear how supportive the president will be.

But Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative talk show radio host in Nevada, said he believes Tarkanian will easily beat Heller, despite his many losses in the past.

“I think [Tarkanian’s] like Abe Lincoln, quote me,” Root said. “He lost and lost and lost and then he won the one that matters.”

Danny Tarkanian at a Republican debate for Nevada’s Third Congressional District in Henderson, April 26, 2016. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

Root refers to Heller as “one and done Dean” — saying he’ll either lose to Tarkanian or in the general election. A Daily Caller-commissioned poll found Tarkanian and Heller in a statistical tie in a matchup among registered Republican voters.

Trump remains popular among Republicans in Nevada, while Heller and the president have had a tense relationship. Heller expressed doubts about Trump during the 2016 election, while Tarkanian spoke at some of Trump’s rallies. This summer, Heller came out against the Senate’s first version of Obamacare repeal and replace, scrambling that effort. A Trump-aligned super-PAC briefly targeted him with ads over that decision, and the president publicly prodded him to get on board, saying, “He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” during a lunch meeting with other senators at the White House.

Heller later voted for a revised version of that bill, but the overall effort failed. That’s allowed his opponent on the left, Jacky Rosen, to blast him for voting to take away health care from Nevadans while getting slammed on the right by Tarkanian for obstructing the president . Tarkanian argued Heller’s initial stance robbed repeal and replace of much-needed “momentum.”

“This will be a bruising, resource-draining primary fight for Nevada Republicans who were already struggling to hold on to this cycle’s most vulnerable Senate seat,” said Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II, adding Heller’s “dancing around” on health care has hurt him. “Whether we’re running against a two-faced fraud like Senator Heller or a tea party extremist like Danny Tarkanian, Democrats are poised to win this race in 2018.”

But Democrats could be in for their own bruising primary. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., has said she will announce soon whether she’ll get in to challenge Rosen, who was hand-picked by former Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. A poll showed Titus and Heller tied in a matchup. “These figures dispel the Reid myth that I am not competitive in a statewide race,” Titus said in a statement in late July. “I will announce my decision after spending time in the district during the month of August.”

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