Heller the man to watch in Nevada politics this year | SierraSun.com

Heller the man to watch in Nevada politics this year

Geoff Dornan
gdornan@nevadaappeal.com

Both nationally and among observers inside Nevada, Dean Heller’s bid for a second term in the U.S. Senate is the race to watch this year.

National pundits are saying he’s the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate.

After that, of course, it’s the Nevada governor’s race that already has a pair of candidates from each major party.

But in Heller’s case, it’s not just the general election. Right now, the attention is focused on the primary where Danny Tarkanian is mounting a challenge to the incumbent, arguing Heller just isn’t conservative at heart and hasn’t, until recently, backed President Trump.

 “I’m not totally sold on Tarkanian as the guy who can take him out,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the UNR political science department. “I think the (Steve) Bannon wing of the party might have wished for a stronger challenger.”

But both he and Fred Lokken, head of the Truckee Meadows Community College political science department, said Heller can’t afford to take Tarkanian for granted.

That’s obviously Heller’s conclusion as well and he has been moving steadily to the right and into Trump’s fold to do just that.

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But both men said Heller’s risk is by running that far right, he might win the primary but so alienate centrist voters, particularly more moderate and conservative Democrats, that he can’t survive the general election.

Heller’s history has always been more moderate than he’s currently painting himself and Lokken said he’s “struck by the insane self-serving hypocrisy of it.”

“He was laughing too hard at the president’s jokes, desperately trying to look like one of the president’s insiders,” he said. “Even if he survives the primary, he puts himself in a bad position for the general election.”

Working to Heller’s advantage, they say, is Tarkanian’s record. He has run for and lost races for five major political positions since 2004. His most recent defeat was to Jacky Rosen in the 2016 congressional contest and Rosen is the likely Democratic nominee Tarkanian or Heller will face.

“Danny Tarkanian is becoming kind of Sharron Angle,” said Herzik. “There’s an election coming up. What is Tarkanian going to run for?”

The interesting note about those five contests is whether Tarkanian lost in the primary, as to Sharron Angle in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, or the general, all five contests were eventually won by a Democrat.

Rosen is another open question to both pundits.

Herzik said she proved a much better candidate than expected in 2016, her first race for public office.

“But Democrats are pinning a lot on a person who has very little record to run on,” he said.

And Lokken pointed out the Republican majority in the House isn’t going to give her any significant legislative victories between now and November to use against Heller.

He said Rosen’s best chance is against Tarkanian because he’s likely “too right to win” statewide.

Both expect the race to replace term-limited Brian Sandoval to generate a lot of news and fireworks as well.

Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt is expected to attract significant financial support from the far right.

“Laxalt’s got far more drive and I think the Republicans will rally around him,” said Herzik.

He said Laxalt should, absent a major gaffe, cruise into the general. But if so, he will likely do it without the backing of the immensely popular Sandoval since he has already pretty much promised to undo everything Sandoval has accomplished in his two terms.

He said the big question there is how much damage state Treasurer Dan Schwartz can do to Laxalt in the primary.

On the Democrat side of the equation are Clark County Commission members Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani. Sisolak is a longtime former regent and Giunchigliani was a longtime member of the Nevada Assembly leadership and before that head of the teacher’s union.

“I understand the Democratic Party is already rallying around Chris but Sisolak already has a sizable war chest and he’s more prominent in Clark County than Chris,” said Lokken.

Where Laxalt is the unabashed far right candidate on the GOP side, Giunchigliani is the progressive wing’s favorite among Democrats. Herzik said both Rs and Ds are experiencing internal splits between the far ends of the party and the more moderate voters.

If the general ends up being Giunchigliani against Laxalt, one might ask where does a moderate voter turn on Election Day.

At least four of the state’s six constitutional offices will turn over in November: the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer.

Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and Controller Ron Knecht are the two seeking a second term. Both are Republicans.

There’s also a lot of movement among members of the Nevada Legislature this year.

“Everybody talks term limits but it’s more ambition turnover,” said Herzik.

At least eight current members of the Assembly won’t be back but, in most cases, it’s because they’re trying to move up to the state Senate or beyond. Freshman Democrat Justin Watkins says he won’t seek another term for family reasons, former Democratic caucus leader Irene Bustamante Adams and Reno’s Amber Joiner say they aren’t running again, either.

Assembly Republican Leader Paul Anderson has already resigned to become the next head of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development

Democrat Nelson Araujo is running for Secretary of State. Republican Ira Hansen is running for the Senate, as are Democrats James Ohrenschall and Republican Keith Pickard.

So the Senate will see some serious changes as well. Independent former Republican Patricia Farley says she won’t run again. Senator Tick Segerblom is running for Clark County Commission. Longtime lawmaker Don Gustavson is retiring from the state Senate and Mark Manendo resigned amid sexual harassment charges.

Scott Hammond, also a Republican, is running for Congress and Republican Minority Leader Michael Roberson is running for lieutenant governor.

Incumbent Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison says he won’t seek a second term.

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford is running for attorney general.

Republican Ben Kieckhefer will likely face a challenge from freshman Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner in his south Reno/Carson City district.

Herzik said he thinks Kieckhefer is so well entrenched with major money interests in the north, he should survive that challenge. He’s also prominent in Senate leadership, with significant influence in the powerful Finance Committee that handles the state budget.

All in all, they said as many as a third of the 21-member Senate may be new faces in 2019.

Both the Senate and Assembly are currently in Democratic hands and neither Lokken nor Herzik expects that to change. Depending on turnout, they say Assembly Democrats could or should reach a two-thirds majority. Current membership is one vote shy of that mark.

Whether the Senate’s slim margin shrinks from two (with Independent Farley) to one or grows also depends on turnout.

The two say it comes down to whether Democrats stay energized against Trump; women voters turn out in part because of the sexual scandals of recent weeks and there’s the Latino vote.

On the subject of Latino voters, Herzik quoted Lokken describing them as “that sleeping giant that never wakes up.”