LAS VEGAS — Many Republicans are breathing easier, confident that the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination fired up their voters.
Dean Heller isn’t one of them. Facing a female challenger in a state gradually becoming more Democratic, the senator and longtime fixture in Nevada politics has long been one of the few GOP incumbents at risk of losing their seat this year.
Now, in the final weeks of the campaign, he’s got a full-scale gender politics fight on his hands, infused with a stoked debate over abortion rights that will test whether the Supreme Court showdown will help or hurt the GOP’s effort to maintain control of the Senate.
He’s facing freshman congresswoman Jacky Rosen, who blasted Kavanaugh and railed on Heller’s characterization of sexual misconduct allegations against him as “smears” and a hiccup in the confirmation process.
Heller, who voted last week to confirm Kavanaugh, “never had any intention of being an independent voice on this Supreme Court nominee,” Rosen said after the vote. “Voters will hold Senator Heller accountable for becoming just another rubber stamp.”
She’s betting her message will resonate with a broad swath of suburban women who are angry with Trump, especially in the aftermath of Kavanaugh’s confirmation following allegations of sexual assault.
For most Republicans this year, supporting Trump and Kavanaugh make for good politics. GOP candidates in North Dakota and Missouri have made inroads by arguing the Democratic incumbents, who opposed the pick, are out of step with voters in these Republican-leaning states who overwhelmingly support Trump and his Supreme Court pick.
But Nevada is different. Heller is the only Republican up for re-election this year in a state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. And though the state is often up for grabs by both parties, the urbanization of the Las Vegas area and the swelling number of Latino and Asian voters are shifting Nevada to the left.
Keenly mindful of Heller’s bind, Rosen frequently showcases his conflicting positions. On Kavanaugh, she blasted his support for an FBI investigation while simultaneously pledging to confirm him. On health care, an issue that Democrats think will hold special resonance with voters this year, she slams him for opposing legislation that would have repealed the 2010 health care law only to author a measure a few months later scrapping the overhaul.
“He is guilty of one of the biggest broken promises,” Rosen said in an interview.
Rosen’s arguments, Heller’s campaign says, are aimed at distracting voters from her light record in the House, where she’s served in the minority for less than two years.
“Jacky Rosen is doing everything she possibly can to distract Nevadans from the fact that she has done zero in Congress,” Heller spokesman Keith Schipper said, echoing Heller in his campaign’s ads.
There’s a dose of irony in the attacks on Heller as being too close to Trump. Heller was a target of the president’s consternation after initially opposing efforts to repeal the health care law. Seated alongside Heller at the White House in the summer of 2017, Trump not-so-subtly threatened the senator in a room full of his GOP peers.
“Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump remarked, insinuating the possibility that he would back a primary challenger.
Since then, the two have made peace, in part through Heller’s work writing provisions of the 2017 tax cuts. Trump has campaigned for Heller in Nevada twice and plans another stop before the Nov. 6 election.
“Your incredible senator, Dean Heller, is going to be with us all the time,” the president said at a rally last month.
Heller, who has been on the raucous Nevada political scene for 24 years, is viewed as an affable personality. But he’s been less visible in the state this year than Rosen, in part because the Senate has been in session more than the House. A campaign aide said Heller’s schedule was still taking shape, but that he planned to participate in a debate with Rosen on Oct. 19.
Beyond running as a Republican in a gradually Democratic trending state, he faces other challenges, including his residency near Reno, in the northern part of the state. Most voters live in the Las Vegas area, where he can’t lose too badly if he wants to win.
Rosen has hurdles of her own. She lacks Heller’s name recognition and has had to fight with little active assistance from Harry Reid, the former Senate Democratic leader and longtime Nevada power broker. Though Reid helped recruit Rosen to run, and has authored email fundraising solicitations for her, he has been absent from the public political fight as he battles pancreatic cancer.
Still, Rosen has had help from rising Democratic women. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a potential 2020 presidential contender, lauded Rosen in June at the Nevada Democratic convention and headlined a fundraiser for her that evening.
Another potential Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, recently spoke to a Nevada Democratic women’s group to promote Rosen and condemn Kavanaugh
As Election Day nears, Rosen is working feverishly to solidify a coalition of African Americans, women and immigrants, including Latinos who hold sway in Las Vegas’ powerful Culinary Union.
She began a recent weekend morning at breakfast with the wives of a dozen pastors who lead some of the most active African American churches in Las Vegas. Over a plate of fried catfish, grits and hash browns, Rosen listened to concerns from the black community, including what can be done for faith-based charities for women.
“We help the homeless women on very limited resources,” said Carmen West, who works with her husband at a church in suburban north Las Vegas. “It would be good to know that we have someone in a position of power and authority to help us help those people.”
Rosen responded with a message of solidarity.
“We are strong together when we form those friendships and those bonds,” she said, slapping the table. “Amen to that, sisters. Women, women, women.”
She later dashed through blocks of Spanish mission-style homes to speak at University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Asian student conference before driving past the strip’s gleaming entertainment monuments to events in the historically black Westside. There, she heard from mothers who expressed concern about police shootings and the safety of young African Americans.
“Every day, it’s just a constant worry about his safety,” said Tracy West, who is unrelated to Carmen, referring to her son attending graduate school in Ohio as a dozen women listened, nibbled on crostini and sipped wine.
Sitting straight and focused on West, Rosen responded: “Some changes only come about through, I think, friendship and trust.”