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Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) talks to attendees before speaking at the Hispanics in Politics breakfast at Doña Maria Tamales Restaurant on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A national group that advocates for veterans who have served in wars since 9/11 is at the middle of a back and forth in Nevada’s U.S. Senate race over whether the group is truly nonpartisan after it gave U.S. Sen. Dean Heller a poor rating on a scorecard in 2010.

Heller’s campaign, in a Saturday press release, described the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America as a “left-leaning partisan group” with a “shady history of misusing donations” after his opponent, Rep. Jacky Rosen, released an ad highlighting Heller’s D grade on a report card issued by the group in 2010. Rosen’s campaign contends that the group is nonpartisan, pointing to a press release from Heller’s own office in 2014 that described the group as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization” when the senator appeared with IAVA CEO and founder Paul Rieckhoff in 2014 to call for a repeal of a cut to cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees.

The report card, which was reported on by the Reno News & Review last week, gave Heller low marks for either voting against or not voting for certain bills, while also not co-sponsoring what the group considered other key pieces of legislation.

In a statement, IAVA said that it has a “long, proud and non-partisan history” of advocating for veterans. The organization, which was founded in 2004 and has a membership of about 400,000 today, says on its website that it partners “with all those who share our commitment to this generation of veterans — whether they’re Democrat, Republican, or independent.”

“Our scorecards are comprehensive and non partisan and reflect the voting records of the elected leaders at that time,” said IAVA's Chief Policy Officer Melissa Bryant in a statement. “We consistently work with elected leaders of both parties day in and day out — including Senator Heller — who himself appeared at an event with us in 2014 and has supported a number of IAVA-led initiatives over the years." 

Heller’s campaign isn’t backing down from its characterization of the group as “left-leaning” and “partisan,” though it did not specifically respond to a question about whether Heller’s perception of the group had changed between 2014 and now.

“We stand by our statement. Dean Heller meets with people across the political spectrum to achieve results,” Heller spokesman Keith Schipper said in a statement.

A 2012 article from the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes examined the overall role of the group within the veterans community, including both praise of its founder as a “role model” to young veterans and criticism of the group as being “a small, unrepresentative sample of returning war heroes, a veterans group with an uncharacteristic liberal bent and a business model that emphasizes online communities over traditional outreach.”

The group also came under fire in an article from the conservative Daily Caller alleging that the organization has misused grant funds. Rieckhoff has denied all claims that the organization misused any funds.

For its part, Rosen’s campaign says that Heller’s campaign is only attacking IAVA because of the poor report card grade.

“Sen. Heller’s number one priority is always looking out for himself, but attacking a nonpartisan veterans organization serving Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because he doesn’t like this bad report card is disgraceful and appalling,” Rosen spokeswoman Molly Forgery said in a statement.

The 2010 IAVA report card dinged then-Congressman Heller for his votes against or non-votes on three key bills identified by the organization and for not co-sponsoring four additional key bills.

Heller’s one non-vote was on a bill to appropriate $108 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a vote he missed to attend his oldest child’s wedding. (The Nevada Independent will have further analysis of this scorecard, including the other bills he opposed or did not co-sponsor, in the coming days.)

Rosen’s campaign seized on the report card in an ad released over the weekend, which said that Heller “was tied for the worst grade in the Nevada congressional delegation and he’s lying to cover it up.” (Then-U.S. Sen. John Ensign also received a D grade from the group.)

Over the weekend, Heller’s campaign put out a press release pushing back on the ad, in turn accusing Rosen of lying about Heller’s record on veterans and dismissing the IAVA report card.

“This ‘grade’ was given out by a left-leaning partisan group that has a shady history of misusing donations meant to support veteran programs,” the release stated.

Both candidates and the organizations that support them have lobbed barbs at the other over the last several months in an attempt to undermine each other’s support with the veteran community.

National Republican groups have accused Rosen of flip-flopping on a measure to increase accountability within the VA, which her office responded to by saying that she opposed a “first partisan version” of the bill and “stood with our veterans to get a better deal." At the same time, a progressive opposition research firm has tried to make an issue out of a vote Heller missed relating to medical issues associated with exposure to Agent Orange, which he missed to attend the funeral of former Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Heller and Rosen will face off in November for a seat that has the potential to swing the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. The two are currently running neck and neck in the race, according to the latest poll numbers.

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