U.S. Sen. Dean Heller repeatedly questioned his Democratic challenger, Rep. Jacky Rosen, about her California donors and thin congressional record, while she attacked his cozy relationship with President Trump and health-care stances during a televised debate Friday evening.
The back-and-forth between the two candidates — who are locked in a tight Senate race fixed in the national spotlight as Democrats’ chance of wresting the majority away from Republicans grows ever dimmer — largely amplified the criticisms they’ve already lobbed at each other during the campaign. It also highlighted the stark contrast between the candidates’ records as Heller tried to paint Rosen as an out-of-touch political newcomer who was born and raised in Chicago and has spent significant time fundraising out of state while she dismissed him as nothing more than a career politician.
The hour-long debate, which aired on KLAS-TV, was moderated by KLAS-TV anchor Denise Valdez, KLAS-TV “Politics Now” host Steve Sebelius and Univision “Politica Ya” anchor Tsi-Tsi-Ki Félix.
A debate over whether to repeal and replace the polarizing Affordable Care Act has dogged Heller over the past year and a half on the campaign trail, and he was forced to confront the issue head on both in the opening question of the debate and during it as Rosen needled him repeatedly about why he had stood alongside Gov. Brian Sandoval and promised to protect health care for Nevadans before voting to advance a bill to repeal and replace the federal health-care law a little less than a month later. Rosen framed the decision as Heller bending to the will of Senate Republicans and the Trump Administration and accused him of backing legislation that wouldn’t actually protect people with pre-existing health conditions.
During the one question she was allowed to directly ask Heller, Rosen asked Heller to look a Reno family — with a son named Dean who has a heart defect — in the eye and explain why he “broke his promise” on health care and supports “slashing” protections for pre-existing conditions.
“He is beholden to Mitch McConnell, his megadonors and Donald Trump in Washington,” Rosen said. “He’s not listening or worrying about Nevadans’ health.”
Heller denied that accusation, calling it “shameful” and noting that he has two grandchildren with pre-existing conditions and vowed that he would protect that right. He pointed to a bill he introduced in August that would require insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, though he did not address criticism from numerous health-care experts who have said that the legislation wouldn’t actually require coverage of the pre-existing condition itself.
After being on the defensive, Heller peppered Rosen with criticisms related to her out-of-state fundraising and trips he tried to label as serving her interests. He lambasted her for visiting the border region earlier this year instead of participating in a vote on benefits for Vietnam veterans suffering side effects from Agent Orange, an attack that Heller and the Republican groups supporting him have made repeatedly in campaign ads.
“She went down to get a photo op and threw the veterans off the bus,” he said. “I think that’s wrong. I think that’s horrendous.”
As she has previously, Rosen defended her trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to check on the immigrant children affected by the president’s family-separation policy, which she has opposed. She said the visit was her duty as a congresswoman. (And the bill on Agent Orange passed 382-0 under rules for bills that are sure to pass.)
“I was just doing my job,” she said.
But Heller continued to dog her with questions about her out-of-state fundraising throughout the debate, including during the one question he was allowed to ask her directly. The Republican senator noted that 90 percent of Rosen’s donations are from out of state and then asked Rosen why she had skipped the opening of the I-11 bypass in Boulder City in August and other events in Nevada in favor of fundraising out of state. (Heller’s top donor last quarter was Nevada at 40 percent of contributions with California in second.)
“Was it worth it?” he asked her.
Rosen pushed back by saying she had spent time traveling around the state including meeting an elderly female veteran in Dayton, talking with voters in a coffee shop in Lovelock and meeting with constituents in Boulder City.
“I’ve been all around this state doing my job,” Rosen said.
During the debate, Heller was forced to account for the daylight between his “99 percent” opposition to Trump during the 2016 election and his close relationship with the president now, with Rosen going so far as to call Heller a “rubber stamp” for Trump. Heller acknowledged that he and Trump used to fight “like cats and dogs” and chalked the change in their relationship up to success.
“When you have success it builds trust. When you build trust it builds friendships,” Heller said. “… Yeah, we had our differences and we will continue to have our differences. I’ll be the first to tell you I don’t agree with everything he says but I do agree with most of what he does.”
The Republican senator couched his relationship with the president as a net positive for the state. He said that if Trump again tries to take public lands money away from Southern Nevada he will talk to him directly about it and claimed that it is his relationship with the president that is the only thing preventing the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain from moving forward.
“If my opponent is elected to the United States Senate, we will have Yucca Mountain by the end of the year,” Heller said.
Questions pertaining to gun rights and the recent tax bill also magnified their stark differences. Heller even acknowledged as such when asked about gun background checks, saying “this question couldn’t put two candidates further apart from each other.”
Rosen said she would support a federal law requiring background checks for all gun sales, including between private parties; Heller said he would not support such a law.
The congresswoman said she wants to protect and preserve the Second Amendment but also promote public health and safety. Rosen noted that she also wants to ban bump stocks — the device used by the Las Vegas shooter to accelerate gunfire — and limit gun magazine capacities.
“Nevada has a rich heritage and history of gun ownership, and we need to protect and preserve that,” she said. “And we can do that with common-sense measures without taking anyone’s guns away.”
Heller said he won’t support anything that would “take guns away from law-abiding citizens,” but he’d like to limit access to guns for people who are incapacitated or have mental-health problems. The native Nevadan then took a jab at Rosen’s geographic background — arguing that because she grew up in Chicago, she’ll attempt to bring Windy City-style gun policies to the Silver State.
“She wants Las Vegas to be just like Chicago, and we know how that’s turned out,” Heller said, to which Rosen’s only reply was a brief, “Oh my.”
Rosen attacked Heller for supporting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which she said favors the wealthy and Wall Street rather than the average American citizen. (During a media avail after the debate, Rosen said that she would not vote to repeal the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act but rather work to reform it “bit by bit.”)
“I’m the only person on this stage that actually voted to make middle-class tax cuts permanent,” she said. “Senator Heller hasn’t. He only voted for a massive giveaway to large corporations.”
But Heller characterized his vote for the tax bill as a move that has aided the national and local economy.
“I voted for the strong economy. She voted against it,” Heller said. “She voted against this economy that we have today that’s not creating jobs, it’s creating better jobs. It’s not just better jobs, but it’s creating careers.”
Rosen also criticized Heller for calling sexual assault allegations that surfaced in the middle of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings a “hiccup” and accused him of not showing empathy for his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Heller clarified that his “hiccup” comment referred only to the process and accused Democrats of victimizing her a second time.
“What (California Sen. Dianne) Feinstein did to her was atrocious,” Heller said. “And I was talking about the process. Maybe I was being a little too nice by calling it a hiccup, but she was victimized twice by the Democratic Party throughout this process.”
Heller also reiterated his support for Kavanaugh. “I think he is going to be a tremendous Supreme Court justice,” he said.
Later in the debate, it was Rosen’s turn to clarify a previous statement. The congresswoman was asked why, during a fundraiser event in Seattle, she said she was out “in front” after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Rosen said she meant that she would be “out front” in her public position as a first-term congresswoman, trying to console and comfort people affected by the tragedy.
The pair — like most politicians — also spent time during the debate boasting about their respective accomplishments for veterans. Heller said he turned around the “worst regional office in the country” for veterans, which resulted in years-long delays for full-time military members to transition and become veterans. The senator said he helped cut “red tape” and now the transition process for that paperwork takes less than 120 days.
“That is a true success story for our veterans here in Nevada,” Heller said.
Rosen said she, too, has made veterans a priority in her congressional office. The Democrat noted that her office has found $700,000 worth of benefits for veterans and returned that to them in Nevada this year. She also touted her support for a bill that lets military members use their education benefits for life.
“If you’re a veteran listening tonight, you can be sure that i’m going to honor and value your service every single day,” she said.
The debate ended with Heller and Rosen urging voters to cast ballots for them in the heated Senate race. Early voting begins Saturday.