Joe Heck Against The World: Can A GOP Senate Hopeful Win Without Trump?

U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., looks on before he speaks at a cost-of-living adjustment bill introduction event Thursday, June 2, 2016, in Henderson, Nev. (AP Photo/David Becker)
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RENO, Nevada – Roger Edwards was having a tough time selling his Republican Senate candidate last week.

Ever since Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), a wiry, 54-year-old Army brigadier general, disavowed Donald Trump at a Las Vegas rally earlier this month, the phones at the Washoe County Republican headquarters in Reno have been ringing off the hook. Trump voters – including Edwards, the chairman of the local GOP there–are irate.

“He could have just shut up. That’s all he had to do,” Edwards said. “Had to shoot his mouth off about how he just couldn’t stand Trump.”

When angry voters call now, Edwards sends them directly to Heck’s campaign. He’s got the number for the office and an e-mail for the staff taped up on a Post-It on the wall behind him.

“I put it up there so I didn’t have to look it up,” Rogers said.

Washoe County Republican Chairman Roger Edwards talks about his frustration with Rep. Joe Heck for disavowing Trump. Lauren Fox/TPM

Edwards printed off an email from his own wife, Bonnie Edwards, to Heck, asking the congressman to “start right now looking for a real job” and “packing up your office in D.C.” because Heck could pretty well “count on losing the election” after he distanced himself from the base’s beloved Trump.

“You know we need the Senate seat and you’re gonna shoot off your mouth and maybe lose the seat to Catherine Cortez Masto?” Edwards asked shaking his head.

The Race For the Majority

Tempers are running high in part because Nevada has one of the most competitive Senate races in the country with two weeks to go until control of the U.S. Senate is decided. While Heck has walked away from Trump, Cortez Masto is benefitting from being at the center of the Democratic nucleus. She’s had the support of five-term U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) from the beginning and both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have joined her at rallies.

TPM’s PollTracker Average has Heck leading Cortez Masto by 2.7 percentage points. In the presidential race, Clinton is up by 2.2 percentage points.

Nevada has been the only seat this cycle that Republicans have had a real chance of picking up, and many outside GOP groups have been salivating at their final opportunity to seek revenge against Reid, the Democratic powerhouse and Senate minority leader who has spent his final years in Washington railing against dark money in politics from the Senate floor.

Heck, who has served three terms as a congressman from a swing district south of Las Vegas, is considered a natural and disciplined candidate whose message on the stump is more a reflection of his own experiences running a military field hospital’s emergency room outside of Baghdad than a recitation of the red meat talking points adopted by most Republican rising stars.

Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto (D) laughs while speaking with people at a campaign event at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Associated Press

Cortez Masto is a crisp two-term attorney general who worked across the aisle to crack down on human trafficking in Nevada and rarely ventures off her talking points. She grew up around the corner from Reid and went to school with his oldest son Rory. Her father Manuel Cortez, or “Manny,” made a name for himself as the head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. She is on the verge of making history as the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate in a state where the Latino vote went from being just 5 percent of the electorate in 1994 to 18 percent of it 2012.

Heck has appeared to have the edge– albeit a narrow one– for months. In part his lead has had to do with the fact Trump was faring better than Clinton in Nevada over the summer where a slow economic recovery, high unemployment rate and larger share of white men without college degrees all benefited him. Throughout the rocky campaign, Heck stood by his endorsement of Trump even as the GOP nominee attacked immigrants, a Gold Star family, a reporter with a disability, backed away from the US commitment to NATO, encouraged the Russians to hack his opponents emails in a press conference, and belittled Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for being a prisoner of war.

Heck was confident he could run his own campaign and be on record trusting Trump with the nuclear codes.

Then on the afternoon of Oct. 7 the Washington Post published that 2005 audio of Trump that made Heck reconsider his decision.

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” Trump could be heard saying on the tape. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump says. “You can do anything.”

“Grab them by the p***y,” Trump said.

‘He Was Donald Trump’s Biggest Supporter’

Last Friday, on the eve of early voting in Nevada, Cortez Masto stood at the front the room at the Democratic headquarters in Reno as she relished in her opponent’s Trump troubles.

“He was Donald Trump’s biggest supporter,’ Cortez Masto said, winding it all up.

“Congressman Heck a couple weeks ago decided he was going to jump off that ship to save his own political career and he unendorsed Donald Trump. That to me is not a leader. That is somebody who’s desperate to save their career,” Cortez Masto said. “I don’t know about all of you, but we all know the emperor had no clothes from the very beginning so why did it take him eight months to figure it out?”

Her audience laughed.

Since the beginning of the general election, Cortez Masto’s campaign has put Trump’s brashness and his derogatory rhetoric front and center in the campaign against Heck.

Heck’s initial embrace of a Republican presidential nominee who disparaged Hispanics with a taco bowl tweet and called immigrants “rapists” seemed likely to sink a congressman running to represent a state with a 28 percent Latino population. It was a perfect foil for the Cortez Mast campaign. You had Heck who stood with Trump. Then you had her. Cortez Masto reminded voters every chance she got that her grandfather immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, served in the U.S. military and then made a life in the U.S.

But, Heck’s own record on immigration was more complicated than Cortez Masto’s depiction of him.

“I don’t believe that what somebody else says about a specific demographic is going to come back and hurt me,” Heck said in a June interview with National Review on Trump.

In 2013, Heck met consistently with immigration advocates as he tried to piece together his own DREAM Act and he was deeply frustrated with his own leadership when they didn’t move forward with any immigration reform legislation. But, Heck also had been dubious of the Senate’s comprehensive bill, arguing that he would have liked to see something more piecemeal even as he supported some kind of path to legalization for undocumented immigrants in the country without criminal records.

The Ultimate Proxy War

Even before Heck disavowed Trump, Heck’s campaign was facing one of the most powerful political forces in the state: Reid’s Democratic machine.

Cortez Masto had the support of Senate Majority PAC and the League of Conservation Voters. Reid also sent his own top communicator Kristen Orthman, to help the Democratic Party of Nevada as the battleground race waged on.

On his side, Heck was once again doing it solo. He’s been without much top of the ticket help. Trump’s campaign notoriously has been light on ground game, and the Republican Party in Nevada hasn’t fared much better

“Heck has been handicapped by a weak state party,” said David Damore, a political science professor and Nevada politics expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “None of the big Republicans have been able to wade into that mess so it is almost like not having a state party.”

President Barack Obama is greeted by Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto before he spoke at a rally Sunday. Associated Press

Damore said that the state and county party infrastructure has been overrun with activists on the far right fringes and trust has been waning with elected officials who have widely shunned party events.

Jon Ralston – who is considered the premier political analyst and reporter in the state– said the state’s Republican Party is “what a criminal enterprise would look like if a comically inept godfather ran it.”

Electing Heck, therefore, has fallen to Heck himself who has been amassing his own ground game as well as Reid’s very motivated arch enemies: Charles and David Koch – and their network of big money groups who have poured millions into the race and executed an extensive ground game.

“It would certainly be poetic justice to see Harry Reid, who for so long has waged an unhinged personal vendetta against people we care a lot about, to see his seat go to someone who supports limited government, free speech,” Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed group, told the New York Times in August.

‘We Can’t Afford To Lose Any Votes Right Now’

On the Saturday after the final presidential debate in Las Vegas, in a gymnasium at Caughlin Ranch Elementary School in Reno, Republicans filed in to see for themselves what was left for Heck to say after he’d abandoned their nominee.

“I want to know if he is going to make amends or is he just doing his own thing and that’s that?” asked 54-year-old Theresa Degraffenreid who stood in the back with her arms crossed.

“I am a Trump supporter and I’ve had an opportunity to meet him and he’s actually a nice person. Is he perfect? No. Is he who I would have picked to begin with? Probably not, but he is our nominee, and for Joe to just come out and say, ‘I’m morally more superior than him,’ is to me a little over the top,” she said.

One young man called Heck’s stand against Trump “principled,” but he was in the minority of attendees TPM spoke with at the rally.

“I’m hoping that Joe will change his mind,” said Donn Daggett, 67.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) at a campaign stop at the Prospector Hotel & Casino in Ely, Nev. Associated Press.

Mary Hemminger, 76, planned to mark her ballot “none of the above” in the presidential race, but even she found Heck’s decision to drop Trump, frustrating.

“I don’t think he should have said anything. I think he should have kept his vote to himself,” she said.

Don Gustavson, a 73-year-old Republican state senator, planned to stand by Heck, but gave a sober analysis of the race since Heck ditched Trump.

“Unfortunately, he may lose some votes and we can’t afford to lose votes right now,” he said.

The event Saturday was Heck’s first public rally in a week. He’d been carrying out his reserve duties, away from the trail as national press descended onto Las Vegas for the highly anticipated final presidential debate. On Saturday, he brought in conservative flamethrower Ted Cruz to ease tensions. It was the political equivalent of bringing home apology flowers to his now-reluctant base.

“You guys are on the front lines with a Senate race that matters to this country,” Cruz reminded the audience in front of a stage-wide poster for Heck. “For far too long, Nevada has been stuck with Harry Reid.”

Neither Cruz nor Heck actually said Trump’s name aloud. Heck, who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees in Washington, instead talked about the Supreme Court, military readiness and security. Then he veered into personal territory that his staff said they’d never heard him talk about before on the stump.

“I still remember to this day the first combat casualty we received when I was working the combat support hospital,” Heck started as he stood center stage.

He then spent his final minutes with his audience, not talking about Trump or Cortez Masto or anything related to Washington. He told a story about the death of a 20-year-old, blonde, blue-eyed marine from St. Charles, Missouri whom he hadn’t been able to save.

The room was silent. The story finished.

The audience, many who said they were irritated with Heck’s disavowment of Trump, stood in applause.

For an instant, Trump seemed to be far from everyone’s minds.

But Heck’s Trump problem could only be ignored for so long.

In a gaggle with reporters afterward, Heck was asked a simple question. After disavowing Trump, who would he be voting for”

“Haven’t decided,” Heck said. “But I can tell you I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton.

Heck’s tried to point out that his decision to disavow Trump has been a deeply personal one.

“As an emergency department doctor, I’ve taken care of far too many women who have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault and I have great empathy for anyone who’s ever had to experience such a tragedy,” Heck said during the only televised Senate debate earlier this month. “You know my wife was the victim of domestic abuse in a prior relationship so the decision I made was an extremely personal decision.”

Heck was asked again in an interview with TPM.

“Are you still open to voting for Donald Trump?”

“My position is I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton and I’ll make a decision when I walk into the [booth] on November 8th,” Heck said.

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