Danny Tarkanian’s primary challenge to Dean Heller focuses on loyalty: ‘They’re all going to know I support President Trump and Dean Heller does not’
Weeks into the tortuous debate over how to repeal Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, a frustrated Donald Trump summoned Senate Republicans to the White House for lunch. During the meeting, the president taunted the assembled lawmakers, tasked with helping him achieve his signature campaign promise, and warned that the consequences of failure might be their jobs.
He jabbed a finger at the senator directly to his right, Dean Heller of Nevada, who had helped stall an earlier version of the bill. “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump said, drawing a surprised laugh.
Heller eventually fell in line, but his party fell one vote short of fulfilling their single biggest promise of the last decade: repealing Obamacare. And now Heller faces a primary challenge anyway.
On Tuesday, Danny Tarkanian, a Las Vegas businessman with a record of winning GOP primaries in the Silver State, announced that he would challenge Heller for the only Senate seat held by a Republican in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
“Over the last several weeks I’ve been inundated with calls from so many people encouraging me to run in the Senate race,” Tarkanian told the Guardian.
“The reason – and this really stuck with me – they said they’re so tired of politicians who promise one thing when they’re running for office and do the opposite when they’re elected.”
Tarkanian’s challenge is yet another sign of the deepening faultlines inside a Republican party still grappling with the election of Trump, who continues to flout core pillars of conservative ideology and yet remains fiercely popular among the coalition of working-class voters now crucial to their base.
On Capitol Hill, weeks, then months, passed without their having achieved a major legislative victory despite control of Congress and the White House. As Republicans left Washington for an August recess with little to show, they started to point fingers.
Trump this week sharpened his criticism of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, escalating a feud that could haunt Republicans in races across the country in 2018.
On Thursday, the president suggested that McConnell should consider stepping aside if he is unable to deliver on the president’s ambitious policy agenda. The remark came in response to a suggestion by the Kentucky Republican that the president held “excessive expectations” of legislative progress.
Asked by reporters at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, if McConnell should resign, Trump replied: “If he doesn’t get repeal and replace [of Obamacare] done, if he doesn’t get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done – infrastructure – if he doesn’t get that done, then you should ask me that question.”
Meanwhile, Robert Mercer, the reclusive hedge-fund billionaire and influential Trump supporter, announced that he would donate $300,000 to a Super Pac backing a primary challenge against the Arizona senator Jeff Flake, according to Politico. The move followed the publication of Flake’s new book, Conscience of a Conservative, which argues that Trump has eroded core conservative values and that the party struck “a Faustian bargain” when it embraced him as its standard-bearer last year.
“I think that Senator Flake would serve his constituents much better if he was less focused on writing a book and attacking the president,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a press briefing last week.
As the 2018 midterms approach, the early clashes on the right have given way to a debate over how deeply the Republican party has become the party of Trump. And Heller, like Flake, is being challenged on the grounds that he has undermined Trump’s agenda.
“It wasn’t just the vote against repeal,” Tarkanian said, referring to Heller’s opposition to the “repeal-only” bill that would have ended the Affordable Care Act (ACA), widely known as Obamacare, with no immediate replacement. “It was also the grandstanding press conference that he had … that killed any momentum that the Senate had to get that bill passed.”
Days before a healthcare vote was expected, Heller held a news conference with the Nevada governor, Brian Sandoval, a Republican, to denounce a Republican plan to replace the ACA, a move that infuriated the White House and sparked a backlash among Trump’s ardent grassroots supporters in his home state.
Tarkanian, who vowed to enact Trump’s “America first” agenda if elected, called Heller a “Never-Trumper” and blamed the senator’s reluctance to embrace Trump during the presidential campaign for helping Democrats sweep the state on election night.
Heller’s campaign dismissed the accusation of disloyalty and greeted Tarkanian’s entry into the race largely with derision.
“Dean Heller has always been committed to advancing the conservative agenda and supportive of President Trump when he is right for Nevada,” Tommy Ferraro, a campaign spokesman, said in a statement to the Guardian.
“Dean and President Trump share a common focus on job creation, tax reform, and smaller government,” he continued, “while Danny Tarkanian remains a desperate, serial candidate who will say and do anything to get attention.”
Despite high-profile clashes with the president, Heller has largely supported Trump’s agenda, said Jon Ralston, a political analyst and editor of the Nevada Independent, a not-for-profit news organization. But he cautioned that it is far too early to predict what the landscape would look like and whether healthcare – or Heller’s relationship with Trump – will be an issue come June, when the election will be held.
“There’s a lot of wildcards out there,” Ralston said. “The turnout is going to be low enough where someone like Danny Tarkanian will have a chance. But Heller’s team is formidable and they’re taking Tarkanian seriously – they’re already going after him and they will give him no quarter.”
Liam Donovan, a former operative at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Tarkanian is less a threat to Heller in the primary as he is an urgent distraction from what promises to be a grueling general election race. Donovan noted that the Nevada Republican is “already among the only targets that Democrats have and is going to have a lot thrown at him”.
How the White House eventually weighs in on the race could also dramatically shift the dynamics. Tarkanian said he had not spoken to the president or his team about his campaign and he was not holding out for an endorsement from Trump (though some observers noted the conspicuous timing of his announcement – during an early morning segment on Fox & Friends, a show Trump frequently watches. It was shortly after 4am in Las Vegas).
Tarkanian acknowledged that his biggest obstacle to taking on an incumbent senator with support from well-financed party-aligned Super Pacs would be fundraising. He said he intended to make the race a “national campaign” and would look to capitalize on the president’s fervent base for support to get out his message in Nevada.
“By the end of the race, they’re all going to know that I support President Trump and Dean Heller does not,” Tarkanian said. “I don’t think it will make much of a difference if he gives me a tweet or not.”
Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs