It wasn’t so long ago that Dean Heller seemed unbeatable.
He’d jumped from the state Assembly to three consecutive statewide wins for Nevada secretary of state. He emerged from a fierce Republican primary for Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District by just 421 votes and won re-election to Congress twice.
After being appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2011, Heller defeated Democrat Shelly Berkley to stay in the Senate in the same election year that former President Barack Obama carried Nevada by nearly 7 points.
Then came Donald Trump, Heller’s stumbles around how to deal with the former president, his Senate re-election loss in 2018, and now a distant third-place finish in the Republican primary for governor.
“You look at his record, it’s pretty impressive,” said David Damore, chair of UNLV’s political science department. “But he got caught in the changing demography of the state and the changing direction of his party.”
Following the 2012 elections, national Republicans put out an “autopsy report” that cited the need for the party to focus on inclusion and extensive outreach to women, Hispanic, African-American and Asian voters in order to have a better chance of competing against Democrats moving forward. That led to a 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, a bill that Heller supported. That bill later died in the House.
“When he gets to the Senate he really becomes quite moderate,” Damore said. “Then boom, 2016 comes and Trump hits, and all of that goes out the window.”
‘99 percent against Trump’
Heller found himself at odds with Trump from the start. Leading up to the 2016 general election, Heller said that he was “100 percent against [Hillary] Clinton, 99 percent against Trump.”
Heller came into Trump’s crosshairs again in 2017 over Heller’s opposition to a Republican measure to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The friction culminated at a lunch with Trump and Republican senators where the former president assured his audience that Heller would eventually vote with the president by asking, “He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Heller went on to vote for a “skinny repeal” that would later fail.
Veteran Nevada Republican political consultant Sig Rogich said Heller was forced to “reinvent himself as a Trump ally.”
“And that clearly wasn’t the perceived case while he was in the U.S. Senate on some highly sensitive issues,” Rogich added.
But even after embracing Trump during his 2018 re-election bid for senate, Heller lost for the first time in his political career.
Jump forward to the 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary, and Heller once again cast himself as a much more Trump-like Republican. And again, voters rejected him. Heller received just 14 percent of the Republican primary vote last week, finishing behind Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo’s 38 percent and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert’s 27 percent.
Another factor likely contributed to Heller’s woes this election cycle, though: timing.
Heller had long been rumored to be weighing a run for governor but didn’t make a formal announcement until September of last year. By that time, Lombardo’s intent to run was already known for nearly half a year and the sheriff had the Republican establishment support and money behind him.
Rogich, who supported Lombardo in the primary, said Heller “confused and lost many supporters with his last-minute entrance into the race.”
With Lombardo occupying that moderate lane, Heller shifted to the right — directly into a crowded field of Republicans vying for the same conservative voters. But Gilbert quickly proved more adept at garnering media attention and generating grassroots enthusiasm among the more conservative Republicans, said Damore.
Damore said that just like in 2018, Heller found himself caught between his moderate past and his trying to be Trumpian.
So what’s next for the 62-year-old Heller?
Heller couldn’t be reached for comment for this story Thursday or Friday.
Rogich said Heller could still have a future in Nevada politics, so long as the former senator is willing to put in the effort.
“He’s articulate and intelligent and he can still be a political fixture in Nevada if he starts the very slow rebuilding phase that’s often necessary after a tough loss,” said Rogich. “Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be easy. It will take commitment and savvy and I’m not sure Dean is willing to sacrifice that time and effort at this point in his life.”
Damore said it’s hard to picture Heller running for anything but the U.S. Senate or governor if he were to run again. But he questions if there is a spot for Heller given the current direction of Nevada’s Republican Party.
“It’s going to be really, really tough,” Damore said. “The Nevada electorate has a pretty good idea of who he is, and he doesn’t seem to fit in the Republican party with its tack to the right.”