Six years ago, Dean Heller was in trouble.
The Democratic machine had built up a seemingly insurmountable lead in early votes, amassing a 71,000-ballot edge in Clark County and 50,000 statewide.
When it came time for me to pen my biennial election predictions column, the decision should have been simple. But something told me Heller would survive, that his relentless pummeling of then-Rep. Shelley Berkley for a House Ethics probe and then a brutal coup de grace distortion about a family trip she took to Italy, would be just enough to save him.
I foretold that he would win by 1 point despite the big Democratic wins on Election Day, and he did.
Not this time.
Heller, who has never lost a race, is almost as much of a political survivor as Harry Reid, the man who built the machine that failed to defeat Nevada’s senior senator six years ago but should succeed on Tuesday. Heller has done everything he can to lose the race — most notably, his multifarious positions on repealing Obamacare leading to the devastating “Senator Spineless” meme. Yet he has a chance to hold on.
Even though the Democratic machine has not built as big of a firewall as in 2012 – 47,000 in Clark County and 23,000 statewide – this is a midterm, and it will be enough. I think.
This has been a strange fortnight of early voting, with turnout much higher than usual for a non-presidential year and with momentum seeming to build for the Democrats and culminating with a Friday wave of votes. (You can read all of the dynamics here on my blog.)
But what’s clear is that younger people are voting in higher numbers, that while the president has animated the right as no other Republican can, Trump Fatigue is beginning to settle in the saner corners of the political universe and anger is rising. What’s also quite evident is that Washoe County, which saved Heller in 2012 when he won by 20,000 votes, has changed a lot. Democrats lead there after early voting by almost 2,000 votes. Heller may win Washoe, where Hillary Clinton also won, but not by a lot more than she did (3,000 votes).
Rep. Jacky Rosen is not a better candidate than Shelley Berkley. Indeed, she may be as nondescript a contender as you can imagine, on the verge of ascending to the Club of 100 when no one knew who she was three years ago before Reid plucked her from obscurity.
But Rosen is real and comes across that way. She is not Wacky Jacky; she is Regular Rosen. And this year, that should be enough.
Quite simply, Heller does not deserve to win. He wanted to run for governor but was scared off by Adam Laxalt. He doesn’t even seem to be trying hard as a senator, sneaking away from the media in D.C. where reporters have even labeled an escape door after him.
He doesn’t like the job all that much. He didn’t want the job all that much. He won’t have the job that much longer.
It’s sad in a way for me to contemplate this. Heller is genuinely one of the nicest people I have met in politics. That incandescent smile, that buoyant demeanor, that carefree mien. But he has surrounded himself with a confederacy of jerks who have not served him well, and he has traveled far from the days when he was a maverick secretary of state who really seemed to believe in things 25 years ago.
He is now willing to sacrifice his self-respect to embrace – nay, fawn over (“Everything you touch turns to gold, Mr. President.”) – a man he would ordinarily disdain (and did just two years ago) to clutch onto a job he does not like and is not very good at. Heller’s Velcroing himself to Trump is a pathetic act of political opportunism and so out of (what I thought was) his character.
If Heller loses – and I am only slightly more confident of this prediction than I was of the one I made six years ago – there will be something Shakespearean in his being ousted by Rosen, who is in the contest because of a recommendation by Las Vegas Judge Elissa Cadish. Cadish should be a federal judge by now, but Heller, in an extraordinary act of demagoguery and pettiness, blocked her from becoming one in 2013. Now Cadish is poised to become a state Supreme Court justice and her bridesmaid, Rosen, is about to become a U.S. senator.
The fault, my dear senator, is not in the stars.
Prediction: Rosen, 48 percent; Heller, 46 percent; others and None of these candidates, 6 percent.
(A side note: I know I should probably rest on my laurels and discontinue this risky public practice every two years of displaying my oracular powers. But even though my record is fairly good – Reid in 2010, that Heller in 2012 call, the Trump loss here in 2016, to name a few – I am always nervous about doing it. But how could I explain balking or bawking now?)
—Governor: Even though I foretold of the red wave in 2014, I was surprised Adam Laxalt eked out a victory over then-Secretary of State Ross Miller. His genetics notwithstanding, Laxalt was barely a Nevadan at the time, was singularly unimpressive (he couldn’t distinguish between the public records law and the Open Meeting Law during a forum sponsored by…the press) and seemed destined to become a footnote in Nevada history.
The night he was elected, some (myself among them) speculated he would run for governor this year. And he began laying the groundwork almost as soon as the 2016 cycle ended.
I thought at the beginning of this year that he was a favorite to win because of the Steve Sisolak-Chris Giunchigliani primary, which I knew would bankrupt the winner. But what I did not see coming was the utter ineptitude of his campaign in the form of not burying Sisolak in the month after his win when the Democrat had no cash on hand and no ability to respond.
Nor did I expect Laxalt to display such utter ignorance of the state budget, wanting to repeal the Commerce Tax without really knowing what it was or what it did, and then bragging about putting $500 million into education because he doesn’t understand what a faux surplus is. He also has demonstrated startling behavior during the campaign, including his obvious lack of knowledge about a pro-choice initiative that changed state law and his disqualifying attempt to abstain on a pardon for an innocent man and then later claiming he was following law enforcement’s lead.
The callow attorney general is singularly unqualified to be governor and even his campaign seems to know it, which is why The Laxalt Cocoon has enveloped him, and he has granted few interviews to anyone but friendly interlocutors.
The attorney general’s attempt during his tenure to try to influence the state’s top gaming regulator to intervene in a civil case to benefit his principal political patron, Sheldon Adelson, would be a scandal worthy of impeachment in any state except the one we are in.
Yet here we are. He could still win.
Steve Sisolak has been a much better candidate than a lot of Democratic doyens thought he would be. He has been unusually disciplined, and his campaign team has been superb.
(I should note that if Heller and Laxalt win, two obviously inferior campaigns populated by some of the worst hacks I have seen ply their trade here will be rewarded.)
Sisolak will break the Clark County Commission curse if he wins, one that caused Harry Reid to tell Rory Reid never to run for that body because it is a political boneyard. Pay to play, people mad at you because of a pothole or 7-Eleven on their street corner, too much money from developers and lobbyists.
I’m not sure how many votes independent Ryan Bundy will siphon from Laxalt, but my guess is it will be enough in this very tight race. If I am wrong about my prediction, Sheldon Adelson will own a newspaper, a gaming empire and a governor.
Sisolak, 48 percent; Laxalt 46 percent; Bundy, 3 percent; others and None of these candidates, 3 percent.
—Congress: Cresent Hardy is going to lose. It’s just a question of by how much. The early voting numbers show an insurmountable ballot lead built for Steven Horsford in this rematch. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me without a firewall twice, shame on me. Hardy is one of the truly decent men in politics, but the math here is too daunting.
Horsford, 52 percent; Hardy, 46 percent; rest, 2 percent.
Danny Tarkanian almost beat Rosen in the congressional race two years ago in a very Democratic year. And I think he would have defeated Heller in that senatorial primary before Trump pushed him out. He has had a real parade of deplorables support him this time – Seb Gorka, Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, Herman Cain. I think he will come close again, but….well, there’s always two years from now.
Susie Lee, 49 percent; Tarkanian, 46 percent; rest, 5 percent.
—The other constitutional offices: It’s impossible to have a feel for the down-ticket statewide offices this year. I think the Democrats will win most of them. If Republican state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson becomes lieutenant governor, it will validate the career of a man who went out on a limb to push for the largest tax increase in history and then transmogrified into a dog-whistling demagogue who pretended not to be behind recalls of colleagues that would have been the worst precedent set in recent Nevada political history. If that kind of behavior is rewarded, voters are just not paying attention. The wave, however big it is, should help Kate Marshall and the others.
—The Legislature: Early voting all but decided most of the races, with the Democratic turnout in Clark County giving the Democrats a chance at supermajorities in both houses. If they hold their own on Election Day, it could happen. I just don’t see it quite getting there.
The Democrats will have 13 seats in the state Senate and 26 in the Assembly.
—Ballot questions: They are all going to pass except for Question 3, which is going to lose by 25 points or so. This is the greatest choke in political history – it won by 72 percent just two years ago. This is also the most ruthlessly brilliant campaign in ballot initiative history – NV Energy’s ability to sow fear about the uncertainty of energy choice and build and buy coalitions was stunning and overcame the theoretically potent argument that MONOPOLIES ARE BAD. And this is the most expensive ballot proposition in history – more than $100 million could have bought a lot of solar panels or a lot of rate reductions.
That’s it. I’ll be the one crowing or eating crow Tuesday.
Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @ralstonreports