Down Ticket #6: Why Republicans who want to win in November — despite Trump — should be watching Nevada

Down Ticket is Yahoo News’ complete guide to the most fascinating House, Senate and governors’ races of 2016. Coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday until Nov. 8. What you need to know today.


This Republican Senate candidate is showing the rest of the GOP how not to get dragged down by the Donald

On Tuesday, we took a breather from cataloging the many Donald Trump-related problems facing down-ballot Republicans in order to point out that, hey, maybe not everything is doom and gloom for the GOP right now.

One of the bright spots: Three vulnerable Republican senators — Marco Rubio in Florida, Rob Portman in Ohio, Chuck Grassley in Iowa — are leading their Democratic challengers in swing states where Trump is nonetheless trailing or tied with Hillary Clinton.

Turns out, however, that there’s a fourth GOP Senate candidate who may be an even better example of how Republicans can save themselves from Trump.

His name is Joe Heck, and he’s running for Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada.

As you may have heard, Reid — a 30-year veteran of the chamber who served as majority leader from 2007 to 2015 and is probably the second most powerful Democrat in the country — will be retiring in January. There is no race Republicans are more determined to win: in part to ensure that they keep control of the Senate, and in part to embarrass Reid.

Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto should be the favorite. She is Reid’s handpicked successor, which means she is backed by the minority leader’s powerful political machine and a Nevada Democratic Party that is much more organized than the state’s notoriously sloppy GOP. (Reid himself has said that he is “devoting a huge amount of my time” to the race.) As the granddaughter of an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, she would be the first Latina senator in U.S. history — a leg up in a state with a large Latino population (28 percent) that votes heavily Democratic. (Barack Obama won 71 percent of Nevada’s Latino vote in 2012). From 2007 to 2015, she served as Nevada’s attorney general, one of the highest-profile offices in the state. And in general, Democrats — who enjoy a statewide voter-registration advantage over Republicans — tend to benefit from presidential-year turnout patterns in Nevada.

Yet Cortez Masto hasn’t led in a single poll since May; in fact, Heck is slightly ahead at this point, according to the RealClear Politics average. Trump, meanwhile, lags a few points behind Clinton.

This wasn’t what the pundits predicted. “If there was any state where Trump would hurt the chances of down-ballot congressional candidates, Nevada was supposed to be it,” the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel recently wrote. “President Obama carried it twice, both times losing the white vote but winning landslides with the state’s enormous Latino population. [But now] Nevada is the only competitive Senate race in the nation where Democrats are playing defense.”

So what’s going on?

Like Rubio, Portman and Grassley, Heck is running ahead of his party’s presidential nominee because he is defining himself in a way that keeps Trump from defining him. Unlike Rubio, Portman and Grassley, however, Heck (a congressman from Nevada’s third district) is doing so as a non-incumbent in a race for an open Democratic seat. This makes his early success more impressive — and potentially more instructive for other down-ballot Republicans.

On paper, Heck looks like exactly the sort of candidate Republicans would want on their team: a physician and a brigadier general in the Army Reserve who has served three tours of active duty. He also has an excellent track record at the ballot box, having narrowly defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2010 before going on to win reelection by widening margins in 2012 and 2014, in a district that twice voted for Obama.

Also important: As one Democratic strategist recently told top Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston, “in Congress, [Heck] has represented 25 percent of the voters of the state, and three-quarters of the voters are in [the] same media market as his congressional district, so he started better defined than Catherine.”

“We knew this race would be tough,” the Democrat added. “He has a good biography as a general and a doctor, so negatives have hit him less hard in past campaigns.”

But the key for Heck — at least so far — is that he’s actually delivered on this promise as a candidate. (Outside money is helping as well.) On the one hand, Heck hasn’t fallen into the same trap as his Republican counterparts in New Hampshire and elsewhere by trying to have it both ways on Trump; he supports the Donald and doesn’t squirm when he says so. But he’s also made it clear that he’d bring a very non-Trumpian set of priorities to the Senate.

Chief among them: immigration reform. Heck was one of the few GOP congressmen who supported the Gang of Eight’s 2013 push for comprehensive reform. He read all 1,200 pages of Senate bill, and though he objected to portions of it, he planned to work on a House version. When House Republicans eventually decided to kill the legislation, Heck released a statement saying the situation was “extremely frustrating and very disappointing.” He spent six months drafting a GOP version of the DREAM Act; he criticizes Trump’s proposed Muslim ban for “stereotyp[ing]” “1.6 billion people”; and when asked about Trump’s mass deportation plan, he insists that “we could not execute it and we could not afford it.” He says that he would continue to advocate for immigration reform as a senator under President Trump.

“It’s hard to predict what the future’s going to hold, but that’s the position I’d take on the Senate side,” Heck told the Washington Post. “Being a smaller body, it might be easier to build a critical mass of consensus than trying to do it in a group of 435.”

To be sure, Heck and Trump overlap on some immigration-related issues. But for the most part, Heck has convinced his diverse district — where he has consistently reached out to minority groups, “arranging discussions about improving Hispanic health care and employing Mandarin and Tagalog speakers on his congressional staff” — that he isn’t anything like Trump.

Not that Heck’s opponents agree. The Democrats’ plan is to paint Heck as a Trump clone: Last month, Cortez Masto described Heck and Trump as “ideological soul mates,” and Reid has referred to his protégée’s rival as both a “parrot” and “Joe ‘I’m Really Trump’ Heck.”

In response, Heck has accused Cortez Masto of being little more than Reid 2.0 and claiming that, of the two of them, only he would hold leaders of both parties accountable.

In a state where neither Reid, Clinton, nor Trump is particularly popular right now, the contest — and perhaps even control of the Senate as a whole — may come down to which argument Nevadans find more convincing. The fact that more of them seem to be supporting Heck than Trump — and fewer seem to be supporting Cortez Masto than Clinton — suggests that the congressman may currently have the upper hand.

Whether Heck can eke out a victory remains to be seen. Still, no other GOP candidate is handling Hurricane Donald quite as deftly. His fellow Republicans should take note.


The sockless senator

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is many things. A former lawn equipment salesman. The twelfth cousin of Aaron Burr. The driver of a 1974 Volkswagen Thing.

One thing Burr is not, however, is a wearer of socks. This week, he decided to explain his aversion via video tweet. It is officially our favorite clip of the 2016 election cycle (so far):

Burr will undoubtedly remain sockless after November’s election. The question is whether he will remain a senator. A NBC/Marist poll taken earlier this month showed Burr’s Democratic rival, Deborah Ross, ahead by two percentage points; two polls released earlier this week awarded Burr narrow leads. The contest is becoming a somewhat unexpected tossup as Trump underperforms in the state and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper pulls away from GOP incumbent Pat McCrory in the governor’s race.

For the record: Down Ticket sometimes goes sockless as well. It’s a southern New Jersey thing. (Not really.)


Cheat sheet: This year’s most fascinating ballot initiatives

By Chris Wilson

Marijuana: Several ballot initiatives across the country seek to legalize weed to varying degrees. In Massachusetts, a victory for Question 4 would make it legal to grow, possess and distribute marijuana for all residents over the age of 21. The state voted in 2008 to decriminalize possession and in 2012, approved the use of medical marijuana. Arizona, California, Maine and Nevada also have measures that would legalize weed for recreational purposes. Marijuana is currently legal for recreational purposes in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas have initiatives to legalize cannabis for medical purposes. In 2014, Florida’s Amendment 2 — which would have created a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana — fell two points short of the 60 percent threshold it needed to reach. Montana has Initiative 182, which would remove a licensed marijuana provider’s three-patient limit. Missouri also considered a medical marijuana initiative, but it failed to make November’s ballot.

South Dakota Referred Law 20: At the conclusion of an election cycle that saw Bernie Sanders putting a national $15 minimum wage front and center, South Dakota voters will have the opportunity to lower the statewide minimum wage for some residents, two years after voting to raise it for all of them.

Confusing? Let’s break it down. In November 2014, South Dakota residents voted 55 percent to 45 percent for Measure 18, which raised the minimum wage in the state from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour, along with annual cost-of-living adjustments. The following year, Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill that exempted South Dakota residents under the age of 18 from the increase, bumping their minimum wage up just a quarter to $7.50 and untethering minors from any automatic cost-of-living increases. Supporters of the measure said the point was to create a “youth training wage” for younger workers.

“I don’t think it is an affront to the will of the voters,” Daugaard said last year, despite overturning part of a measure that passed by 10 points a few months earlier. “Again, I think that campaign focused on adult workers who support a household and not on teenagers.”

That leads us to Referred Law 20, which will be on the ballot in November after a group opposing the lower wage for young workers successfully filed a petition. A yes vote will lock in the minimum wage for minors at $7.50 without any automatic increases, while a no vote would restore the law to what South Dakota residents voted on two years ago. It is one of a few states with a minimum wage measure on the ballot; the others are Colorado, Maine and Washington. The Washington measure (Initiative 1433) would also give residents the opportunity to earn paid sick leave in addition to boosting the minimum wage.

California: The Golden State has a robust ballot-initiative process that lets voters to decide on a variety of issues every election cycle. A few of the items on the ballot this November:

  • Proposition 62: Repeal the use of the death penalty in the state. California has not executed a prisoner since 2006.

  • Proposition 63: A gun control measure that would prohibit high-capacity magazines and require background checks for the purchase of ammunition.

  • Proposition 64: As mentioned above, this would legalize recreational marijuana in the state.

  • Proposition 67: Prohibit the use of plastic bags at large grocery stores and other retailers.

And then you have Proposition 60, which would require pornographic actors to use condoms.

Colorado Amendment 69: Some strange bedfellows have come together to oppose this initiative, which would create a universal health care program for all the state’s residents. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet, both Democrats, oppose the measure, claiming it would hurt businesses and increase taxes. Meanwhile, health care companies and the Koch brothers’ organization Americans for Prosperity are spending money to defeat it. Polling in June showed the yes votes in the lead, but Amendment 69’s chances of passage have declined since then. State Sen. Irene Aguilar, an early advocate for the amendment, admitted earlier this week that she’d consider support from 35 percent of the state’s voters a moral victory.


Want a sneak peek of the message down-ballot Republicans will be running on this fall? Paul Ryan’s got you covered.

… and surprise: It doesn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump.

For the past few weeks, the political press has been speculating about when the Republican Party will pull a Dole ’96 and start publicly pushing a “blank check” message, essentially conceding a Trump loss and campaigning instead to preserve their congressional majorities as a brake on the liberal ambitions of President Hillary Clinton.

But Paul Ryan is already there.

Here’s a fundraising email the House majority leader sent out Wednesday:

As Paul Ryan goes, so goes the GOP. Expect more of this in the weeks ahead.


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