Updated September 22, 2021 - 6:12 am
RENO — Dean Heller says he knows who the president is. He just won’t name that person — no matter how the question is asked.
“I still know who the president is, but I do believe we have a problem with elections,” Heller said in a 30-minute interview Tuesday at the Washoe County Republican headquarters.
The conversation ranged from his views of former president Donald Trump, the outcome of the 2020 election, his criticism of Gov. Steve Sisolak and election security.
Heller repeatedly declined — during his kickoff on Monday and in Tuesday’s interview — to say that Joe Biden had been elected in 2020. Trump himself has contended the election was fraudulent, and that Biden did not legitimately win, although legal challenges to the election have been rejected by courts nationwide.
Heller enters the Republican race for governor with a likely edge over four announced rivals because of his name recognition and political history. He served two terms in the state Assembly representing Carson City from 1990 to 1994, then three terms as secretary of state from 1995 to 2007. He served in the House of Representatives from 2007 until 2011, when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Brian Sandoval.
He won the Senate seat in his own right in 2012 but lost it to Democrat U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen in 2018, a year when Democrats swept all but one statewide race.
Relationship with Trump
In October of that year, Trump flew to Elko in support of Republican candidates in Nevada, including Heller. Welcoming Trump to one of the state’s gold mining centers, Heller said: “Mr. President, you know a little bit about gold. In fact, I think that everything you touch turns to gold.”
It was a far cry from 2016, when he said he was “100 percent” against Hillary Clinton and “99 percent against Trump” in the wake of the release of an “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump made crude remarks about groping women.
Heller in 2017 voted against a GOP measure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, angering the president. He later reversed himself.
“Absolutely,” Heller says when asked if Trump still has something like the Midas touch. “I think he’s a lot better than the guy we have there. Think of the differences between the guy we have there now and the guy that was there.”
He lists border security, crime, elections and education as areas where Biden and Democrats have fallen short.
“I mean, it has changed dramatically on less than a year, simply from one president to the next,” he says. “I stand behind that comment.”
Looking to the general
Heller is already looking, and talking, past a likely Republican primary and focusing his attacks on Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, whom he lumps in with Biden for all that ails the body politic. Sisolak’s decision in late March last year to order nonessential business shutdowns in response to the exploding coronavirus pandemic has put Nevada “at the top of every bad list in America,” Heller says.
He adds that the pandemic was a period rife with “bad politicians making bad decisions.”
Asked what he would have done differently, Heller says he “would have trusted the instincts of Nevadans.” He stresses his opposition to all mandates and shutdowns imposed during the pandemic. Though he and his family got the COVID-19 vaccination, and he urges people to get vaccinated, he won’t mandate inoculations or masks.
“I believe that the unvaccinated are only a problem to other unvaccinated people,” he says.
Questioned on that point, Heller doesn’t back down. “Everybody thinks they’re an expert, everybody thinks they’re a scientist. That’s what’s going on out here,” he says. “And every one of these scientists change their opinions every two weeks. So what are we to rely on except people’s common sense?”
Heller says he will continue to urge vaccinations for people who haven’t received them, believing that is “the way we eradicate this virus. But I still believe that people have to make those decisions for themselves so I will never mandate a vaccine.”
Ups and downs with Trump
Heller acknowledges that “from time to time, we did have our disagreements,” but says they worked them out around the 2017 Republican tax cut plan and a veterans benefits package, among other initiatives.
“We may have had some personal differences, but when it came to the America First agenda, I supported it, I helped write it. And I support it to this day,” he said.
He doesn’t blame Trump for fomenting the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol, defending the right of protest but calling the breach of the Capitol “atrocious.”
“I think what was wrong was obviously when they went into the Capitol building,” he said. “They made those decisions on their own. I do not blame the president. I’ve seen the videos. I’ve seen what he said during the rallies, during the protests. And I think that there’s no way in my opinion that he was responsible for the actions of these individuals of going inside that Capitol building and doing what they did.”
Heller says election integrity is a bipartisan concern, equating Democratic protests over alleged Russian election meddling and collusion in 2016 with Republican accusations of election fraud in 2020.
“We’re talking about changing the outcome of an election. We’re talking about changing by manipulating the process,” he said. “So both sides thought that their candidate had won. That was my point, that election fraud is a bipartisan issue. Both sides are concerned about their candidates and the outcome of these elections. And that’s my point, Whether it’s Russian collusion or its ballot harvesting, it does change the results of elections if it is abused.”
“But I am a former secretary of state here,” he says. “I did it for 12 years. I know a thing or two about elections and that process. And the last time Nevada had a safe, secure election in this state was when I was secretary of state.”
Since Heller left that office, Democrat Ross Miller and Republican Barbara Cegavske have served as secretary of state. Cegavske has stood behind the results of the 2020 election, saying her office found no widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome of voting.
Heller said changes in election processes in Nevada since his tenure have made ballots less secure. He mentions that as secretary of state, he moved to have county registrars voters removed twice, in Washoe and Mineral counties, for election irregularities.
Asked if he was confident in the results of Nevada’s elections in 2020, he says it “was a mess.”
“No, I’m not. I’m not 100 percent confident,” he said. Watching from the sidelines, he said, “I think the 2020 election was a mess.”
Heller, once considered a moderate Republican, rejects that characterization, saying it’s a label often assigned to those who reach across the political aisle to get things done. In 12 years in Washington, he says he passed “probably over 100 pieces of legislation.”
“Now if you’re aggressive and abusive, and in people’s face all the time, you know, it’s very, very hard to get work done over there,” he says. “And I believe that the best way to get it done is to sit down have conversations and work with both sides.
But he does call himself “the most conservative candidate” among the Republicans in the running. The announced field includes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Reno lawyer Joey Gilbert, and businessman Guy Nohra.
“I think success is sometimes described as being moderate. And I reject that label. I am very, very conservative, I just get along with people so that we can get good things done for Nevada.”
With voter registration in Nevada increasingly putting Republicans at a numerical disadvantage, Heller says a conservative message will help him win.
“Everybody wants the same thing. They want good jobs, they want to safe neighborhoods, and they want good education,” he says. “And if they have those 3 things taken care of, they’re gonna like the person that’s in office, or the person that’s taking care of it.”
“I believe conservative principles are gonna win this race and this election,” he adds.
“Since Democrats have taken over Washington DC, and they’ve taken over Carson City, look at what we have?” he says. “I think after everything they have seen through lockdowns and mask mandates and all these things that the governor, the government, has put upon them over the last couple of years, that a conservative message is going to win.”