Danny Tarkanian, son of a famous college basketball coach, is running against history as much as he is running against Nevada’s incumbent Republican senator.
Few politicians manage to win major statewide office after going 0-5 in previous campaigns, as Tarkanian has since 2004. What’s more, according to calculations by University of Minnesota research fellow Eric Ostermeier, no Republican senator from the Silver State ever has lost a primary challenge. In fact, of the 32 senators from either party who sought to hold onto the office, the only two ever defeated in a primary were running in their first elections after being appointed to fill vacancies.
So Tarkanian faces long odds by the numbers.
But Ostermeier said Tarkanian is not a typical perennial candidate, and this is not a typical primary challenge. He pointed out that Tarkanian came within 3,943 votes of winning last year’s congressional race against now-Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and had respectable showings in races for the House in 2014, secretary of state in 2006, and the state Senate in 2004.
“He has come close to winning all of those races,” said Ostermeier, founder of the blog Smart Politics.
Nevada is one of three states where vulnerable Republican senators are trying to fend off challenges from the Right. In Alabama, appointed Sen. Luther Strange trails firebrand social conservative Roy Moore in polling for a special election this month to fill the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In Arizona, former state Sen. Kelli Ward next year will try to take out Sen. Jeff Flake.
All three races differ in key ways from the Tea Party challenges to Establishment Republican senators since 2010, said Ostermeier. In races where challengers won or came close, they tended to be much younger than the incumbents, who tended to be fixtures in the upper chamber. The incumbents, on average, had been in office for 24 years and were 28 ½ years older than their challengers.
Ostermeier pointed to races such as Mike Lee’s defeat of then-Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah in 2010, Richard Mourdock’s win over then-Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana in 2012, and Chris McDaniel’s near-win against Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi in 2014.
But Ostermeier noted that Flake, Strange and Heller all are first-termers and similar in age to their opponents.
“We may be seeing something here,” he said.
Tarkanian Touts Poll
For his part, Tarkanian touted a poll last month showing him up by 8 percentage points over Heller, with 31 percent of likely Republican primary voters still undecided for a race that is still nine months away. The JMC Analytics poll comes three weeks after a Strategic National survey put Tarkanian within 4 points of the incumbent.
Tarkanian discounts a Heller-sponsored poll showing the incumbent with a 22-point lead.
“Our chances are tremendous if you look at what’s happened so far,” he told LifeZette.
Heller’s campaign did not respond to inquiries from LifeZette.
The JMC Analytics poll highlighted one of Heller’s biggest potential vulnerabilities — eight in 10 likely Republican voters approve of President Donald Trump’s job performance. That offers Tarkanian an opening, since Heller has been a lukewarm supporter, at best, of the president. He did not admit until last month that he even voted for Trump.
“He was one of the first Never-Trumpers in Nevada,” he said.
[lz_table title=”Danny Tarkanian Electoral History” source=”Ballotopedia”]Margin of defeat
2006 secretary of state,8.6%
2004 State Senate,7.5%
Heller also appears to have mishandled the health care issue in a way to guarantee disappointment on all sides. Despite voting for a straight-up repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2015, he waffled during the debate in the Senate earlier this year. He helped torpedo the original Obamacare replacement that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed by announcing that he would not support slowing spending Medicaid or rolling back the expansion of the program ushered in under the current law.
Under pressure from Trump — the president publicly poked him during a meeting at the White House with a group of GOP senators about wanting to remain a senator — Heller voted “yes” on the so-called “skinny” repeal that would have kept most of Obamacare’s taxes and regulations while cutting spending.
Senators on the moderate and conservative sides of the caucus mostly agreed it would be bad policy, but many voted for it to keep the process going by sending the bill to a conference committee with the House of Representatives, in hopes that something more palatable would emerge.
Tarkanian Blasts Heller Over Obamacare
Tarkanian called it an abdication of leadership.
“The skinny repeal was the worst bill that was out there,” he said. “What it would do was, it would keep almost all the taxes and then it was gonna keep, it was gonna increase the rates by 20 percent more than they’re going to increase already this year.”
Tarkanian said his family’s own health insurance deductible shot up 650 percent while premiums have skyrocketed by $12,000 — 300 percent — since Obamacare took effect. He said the co-payment for his son, whose stroke requires frequent trips to specialists, increased from $25 to $150.
Heller worried about the impact of repeal.
“That shouldn’t be in the equation,” he said. “It should be what’s in the best interests of our constituents and our country. Obamacare is just a ticking time bomb and the worst bill you could have out there.”
Beyond Obamacare, Tarkanian said Heller also flip-flopped on immigration and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Both issues could be viewed in the context of a state that turned sharply toward the Democrats last year, with Hillary Clinton carrying the state in the presidential race, Catherine Cortez Masto defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Joe Heck, and the party seizing control of both houses of the state legislature.
But Tarkanian said Heller has misdiagnosed why Republicans fared so poorly. He said it is because Republican leaders ran from Trump rather than embracing him.
“Dean Heller cannot win a general election because he cannot get the base of the Republican Party to vote for him,” he said.
Tarkanian said he had planned on a rematch against Rosen in the 3rd Congressional District outside of Las Vegas but decided to take on Heller after getting encouragement from people across the state. He said he thought back to a conversation he had several years ago with his father, Jerry, who coached the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, men’s basketball team for 31 years.
“I’ve never backed down from a challenge in my life,” he said.
(photo credit, homepage image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr; photo credit, article images: Gage Skidmore/Dean Heller, Flickr)