Dean Heller can’t win on Obamacare.
He’s inflamed the left and right throughout the debate on repealing the law. And now the Nevada Republican is handing critics more ammunition by signing onto a new overhaul of Obamacare that has piqued the interest of the White House but nonetheless has little momentum.
Heller’s latest push may only exacerbate the notion that he has followed a too-complicated and contradictory path on health care, one that has infuriated conservatives and made Democrats privately cocky about their chances of snatching his seat next fall.
“If his intent is to get reelected, he’s completely botched it,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist in Nevada and former executive director of the state GOP. “I think the damage has been done.”
Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative commentator in Nevada, fumed: “Dean Heller is not a Republican.”
“I’ve got a new name for people like him: ROTT. Republicans on the take,” Root said in an interview. “They’re bought and paid by corporate America.”
Democrats are gleeful about how Heller handled the repeal effort.
Planned Parenthood and the advocacy organization Save My Care have already swamped the airwaves targeting Heller; political groups such as Priorities USA and the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm have gone after the senator with digital ads.
And with the August recess coming up, Democrats are promising more pain for Heller back home.
"We’re very bullish on Nevada because we’ve got the incumbent senator being on all sides of an issue that’s really important to the people of Nevada,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “People want somebody who’s going to stand up for the people of Nevada, like the governor."
Even with the repeal battle largely over for now, Heller is among a small circle of GOP senators who are trying to revive legislation to revamp the 2010 health care law. Along with Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Heller is crafting a plan that would, among other provisions, end Medicaid’s open-ended entitlement and eliminate the enhanced funding under Obamacare that Nevada currently gets.
But Heller’s office said under the nascent Graham-Cassidy bill, the state of Nevada would actually get more funding for Medicaid than it currently gets under the Affordable Care Act.
"Under Graham-Cassidy, Nevada would be able to spend health care dollars how it sees fit and explore new options to address coverage and cost," Heller, who declined an interview request at the Capitol, said in an emailed statement.
As the sole GOP senator up for reelection in a state won by Hillary Clinton last year, Heller is the top target for Democrats who otherwise have few offensive opportunities next November. His main Democratic challenger, Rep. Jacky Rosen, launched a 60-second digital ad Tuesday urging voters to “repeal and replace” him.
Allies of the 57-year-old senator deny that Heller is in trouble, pointing to an electoral track record dating back to 1990 that includes being the only GOP senator to win in a state that Barack Obama carried in 2012.
“Ultimately, the one thing Dean Heller doesn’t do is lose elections,” said one Republican familiar with the race.
The GOP is instead focusing on tearing down Rosen, a freshman lawmaker and acolyte of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who is little known statewide — giving her opponents plenty of running room to define her.
Republicans have already sketched out the outline of their anti-Rosen messaging: She’s a politician with essentially no record of accomplishment who is closely aligned with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The GOP also plans to repeatedly emphasize Rosen’s vote against defunding “sanctuary cities," which don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials.
“Jacky Rosen has already proven to be an ineffective Congresswoman more concerned about campaign commercials than she is her actual job in Congress,” said Tommy Ferraro, a Heller campaign spokesman.
Meanwhile, Rosen could also still face a primary challenge from Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who hasn’t ruled out a run despite the party apparatus quickly lining up behind Rosen.
As for Heller, key Republicans believe he can skirt any political fallout over his handling of the health care battle in Washington by emphasizing that the “skinny repeal” plan he helped advance last week did not touch Medicaid — a top priority of Nevada GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval.
"I think every senator understands their state best, and I usually defer to their judgment when it comes to how they position and how they vote in their state’s interest,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican. “Dean, over the years, has proven a real aptitude for understanding the voters in his state and acting accordingly, and had a lot of electoral success. So I think he’s positioning the best way he thinks he should."
Added one national GOP strategist: “Making his position clear that anything with the [Medicaid] expansion would be off the table made the most sense for him.”
But that comes after weeks of Heller seemingly playing all sides of the Obamacare repeal fight.
First, Heller stood up next to Sandoval to lambaste the first iteration of the Senate GOP’s repeal-and-replace plan, urging Republicans to protect Medicaid expansion states such as Nevada, where more than 200,000 people are now covered because of the Obamacare expansion.
His opposition earned him the enmity of the White House, where allies of President Donald Trump immediately launched plans to run a television advertising campaign against Heller. The ads were later pulled, but Trump continued to publicly poke at Heller afterward.
During the floor debate last week, Heller opposed a test vote on a straight repeal of major parts of Obamacare — the same legislation he favored back in 2015. He then proposed an amendment aimed at showing off his pro-Medicaid bona fides, which cratered with only nine other Republicans siding with him although it also highlighted a notable bloc of resistance within the GOP toward overhauling the entitlement program.
Then he chose to advance the so-called skinny repeal plan, which was headed toward failure anyway — splitting him from his immensely popular governor, who opposed the plan, and handing new ammo to Democrats eager to hammer Heller over that vote straight until the 2018 elections.
“The cake is baked on this,” one Nevada Democrat said. “Heller has already voted repeatedly to slash Medicaid and end Medicaid expansion funding, publicly endorsed a phase-out of the expansion last month, and owns 20-plus votes to dismantle” the Affordable Care Act.
And Heller’s maneuvers haven’t inoculated him from wrath from the right.
The editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, owned by GOP mega-donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, slammed Heller for his “shifting viewpoints” on repealing Obamacare, saying that has “damaged his credibility with his political base.” The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity warned Heller to “get back on the right side of the issue” after he voted against a straight repeal of the law.
“Republican voters will abandon you in droves, and you haven’t gained one Democratic vote,” Root said. “It’s the worst political strategy ever.”
A recent survey from the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found that just 29 percent of Nevada voters approved of Heller’s job performance while 56 percent did not. Republicans pointed to another poll from Titus’ campaign, which showed much less lopsided numbers: 47 percent approved of him, and 41 percent did not.
Heller could also face a primary challenge from former congressional candidate Danny Tarkanian, whom Rosen defeated to win her House seat last fall.
Tarkanian said in an interview that he is still mulling a run against the senator and that a decision is coming soon.
“Worst thing Sen. Heller did was, he kept going back and forth and you couldn’t figure out where he stood,” Tarkanian said. “I think that the public deserves to have a representative in Washington, D.C., that will stand by their convictions and vote the way they campaigned on.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.