Heller May Avoid Primary but Still Faces Fall Rematch

Posted April 15, 2008 at 6:30pm

One month out from Nevada’s May 16 filing deadline, freshman Rep. Dean Heller (R) appears set to cruise to the November general election without any major primary opposition.

Sources in Washington, D.C., and Nevada say the woman who came within 500 votes of being the 2006 Republican nominee has indicated privately that she will not run again this year, despite rumors to the contrary. That would free up the Congressman to focus his energy on fending off the Democrat he beat last cycle by a slightly less nail-biting 13,000 votes.

Conservative former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R), who now runs a political action committee dedicated to setting a new state property tax cap, could not be reached for comment this week about whether she’ll challenge Heller again in the primary. But Zac Moyle, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party said, “Sharon Angle has given no indication whatsoever that she has any intention of jumping into the race, and I don’t think Heller has given anyone any reason to challenge him.”

If Angle does surprise Nevada race watchers and try to knock off the incumbent with a challenge from his right, it appears she’d have to do it without one of her key allies from the previous cycle.

In 2006, powerful anti-tax group the Club for Growth was a key fundraiser and supporter of Angle’s and helped her portray herself as the true conservative in the GOP primary.

Since 2006, Heller has used his voting record to shore up his conservative credentials, and these days the Club for Growth doesn’t appear to have any problem with the freshman Congressman.

“We were rather pleasantly surprised by Heller’s record,” said Nachama Soloveichik, the club’s communications director.

In 2007, Heller was one of 16 Members to score 100 percent on the Club for Growth’s “report card” on anti-pork votes.

As far as whether the club would consider backing Angle again this cycle over Heller, Soloveichik said: “It hasn’t come up. … It would probably be unlikely.”

When Heller was secretary of state, “he was a pretty moderate guy. I think that’s how he positioned himself last time around,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and a Nevada pundit.

But after drawing opposition in 2006 from Angle and former Assemblyman Dawn Gibbons (R), the wife of Gov. Jim Gibbons (R), Heller had to spend almost every penny in his war chest.

“He’s definitely tacked to the right to avoid this primary challenge” in 2008, Damore said. “I think he’s positioned himself well.”

But even though Heller doesn’t appear to be in for the bruising primary fight that will drain him of cash, Democrats say they have good reason to be optimistic about the repeat candidacy of former Nevada Democratic Party Chairwoman Jill Derby.

“Heller now has a record in Congress that he didn’t have before that Democrats can target,” said state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus (D).

Democrats will probably go after Heller this fall for his vote last year against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program expansion. National liberal advocacy organizations attacked Heller on the issue when the vote took place.

Titus said that in her second shot at the seat, Derby can again count on the support of the Nevada Democratic Party establishment.

“She is very well-respected. I think she can build on the reputation she helped established in the last campaign because she ran such a good race, learned a lot about how to do it, made a lot of contacts in rural Nevada and even though she didn’t win it, I think she won a lot of respect.”

Derby reported raising $144,000 in the first quarter of the year and banked $134,000. Heller raised $187,000 and finished the first quarter with $808,000 in cash on hand but also reported $370,000 in debt.

But perhaps most important for Derby is the fact that Nevada Democrats have gone on something of a voter registration tear since the state’s presidential caucuses in January. Between January and March, Democrats saw a net 12,000 voter swing in their favor in the 2nd district, according to statistics from the Nevada secretary of state.

And Democrats say their voter registration numbers are only going to increase as the presidential election gets closer.

“These two Democratic candidates have not ignored rural Nevada and have put an effort out there which I think will help Jill,” Titus said.

But Democratic registration still trailed Republican registration by 30,000 voters as of March and it would be a tall order for Democrats to overcome that gap by November.

Democrats “can talk those registration numbers all they want but that is a tough district for a Democrat,” Damore said.

“We don’t see it as a changing district,” Moyle said. “Every year after the election, the Democrats traditionally make some strides but … once we get our [voter registration] programs on the ground, which we have going now, we always make back those gains. We’re very confident that the 2nd Congressional district will continue to be what it always has been and that is the bread and butter of our voters and the heart and soul of our party.”