Can Dean Heller be beaten?
That question has come up this week, a mere 636 days before the 2018 election, because of GOP Sen. Heller’s vote on Betsy Devos, the controversial education secretary, and because of a piece that posted behind a National Journal paywall, headlined, “Race to Face Heller ‘Wide Open’.”
As Democrats took to social media with a fury to talk about defeating Heller and floating various names, the sub-head of the National Journal piece tells the tale: “There is no obvious challenger yet in Senate Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity.”
Indeed. Or a not-so-obvious challenger, either.
Heller is widely considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent because he is the lone GOP senator up in a state Hillary Clinton won last year. But while any kind of speculation in February 2017 is worth about the same as what John Nance Gardner said about the vice presidency, let’s get a few things straight:
—-Heller has never lost a race. And if he ever was going to lose it was in the 2012 Democratic romp in Nevada – instead, he won by 12,000 votes against ex-Rep. Shelley Berkley, who was dogged by a House Ethics Committee investigation.
—-Democrats had a disastrous 2014 in Nevada that wiped out its bench. The Reid Machine returned with dramatic effects in 2016, but neither Reid nor the Machine is there for 2018. (I like to muse about Harry Reid coming out of retirement to challenge Heller, but that pundit’s fantasy is just that.)
—-No one – and I mean no one – knows what the atmosphere might be in 2018. Will the president’s numbers be a drag on GOP candidates or a boon? Democrats are convinced of the former; I am not convinced of either.
—-So who might the Democrats get? Let’s take a look, with the caveat that I believe little anyone says 636 days before the election and a year before candidate filing opens:
Rep. Dina Titus — This from the National Journal piece tell us nothing: “It’s pretty wide open right now,” said Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, who told National Journal she is considering a bid. “I’ve never made my decisions based on what anyone else will do.”
Most Democratic insiders don’t think Titus, who lost a statewide bid for governor in 2006 against scandal-plagued Jim Gibbons, will give up a biennially safe seat. But she is a smart, savvy pol who will gauge the political winds before deciding if it’s time for an up-or-out move.
Jacky Rosen – The freshman congresswoman is mentioned because….she is a Democrat in Congress. But she is new to politics and no one knows yet how she will perform despite an impressive first campaign. She will be targeted in this swing district, so she may see a shot at Heller as a better bet.
Ruben Kihuen – Obviously ambitious, Nevada’s other freshman Democratic congressman is in a seat he could hold for a long time. If Trump’s numbers are terrible, and Heller seems weak, Kihuen, a natural pol, might find an early jump up the ladder irresistible.
Steven Horsford – The former congressman, who lost in a huge upset in 2014, seems happy in his new gig with R&R Partners. Horsford, who was impressive as a freshman in DC, was mentioned by the National Journal, but there’s no sign he wants to run or would be at the front of the line.
Ross Miller – The former secretary of state, also ousted in 2014, is always floated because, like Horsford, he is relatively young and a former Democratic rising star. But Miller, also mentioned by the National Journal, is making money from a variety of pursuits and has shown no inclination to jump back into the fray.
Jan Jones Blackhurst – The former mayor, who lost two gubernatorial bids and now works for Caesars Entertainment, seems like she might be hungry to get back into the game. She was mentioned by the National Journal, which tells me she has told others, too.
Aaron Ford – The Senate majority leader is also open about his ambitions, but he seems more likely to run for attorney general or governor. He will be at midterm, so it’s a free shot.
Kate Marshall – Another victim of the 2014 GOP wave in Nevada, the former treasurer is a prime candidate. She wants to get back in, but she may not be the party’s first choice here.
Steven Cloobeck – The fabulously wealthy entrepreneur who just sold his business says he wants to run for governor. But if he changes his mind, he could be formidable here if he really puts in the kind of cash he says he will into the governor’s race ($5 million to start). He’s a major national Democratic donor and could tap into a wider network than most.
Other Democrats are possibilities – state senators at midterm, an ambitious local government official, an outsider with money. But the bottom line 636 days out:
Heller is a solid favorite, especially because he has no obvious or not-so-obvious opponent.