Trump weighs in on Nevada Senate race, clearing the way for Heller. But will it be enough?

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., with President Trump at the White House. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

For months now, the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., has been that President Trump, with his record disapproval ratings and chaotic leadership style, has made his party’s campaign to keep control of Congress even more challenging in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

But on Friday, Trump surprised the prognosticators by actually doing something that could, in theory, improve the GOP’s chances in November: He asked right-wing candidate Danny Tarkanian to abandon what was expected to be a hard-fought GOP primary challenge against Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and pursue instead the U.S. House seat that will be vacated by Rep. Jacky Rosen, Heller’s likely opponent in the Senate race.

Tarkanian quickly acceded to the president’s request.

“It would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada, and it’s [sic] unity if good guy Danny Tarkanian would run for Congress and Dean Heller, who is doing a really good job, could run for Senate unopposed,” Trump tweeted.

On Friday, Tarkanian told the Reno Gazette Journal that he planned to file for the congressional contest later that day. In a statement, the son of legendary University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian added that he was “confident” he would have won the U.S. Senate race and done a “great job” representing Nevada, but that the president was “adamant.” Eventually, Tarkanian agreed that a “unified Republican ticket” would represent the “best direction for the America First movement.”

The switch came as welcome news in pretty much every corner of the Republican Party. Nevada’s Third Congressional District is seen as one of the GOP’s best pickup opportunities, in large part because Rosen won there in 2016 by a mere 3,943 votes. The opponent she barely defeated? Danny Tarkanian. He will immediately vault to the front of the nine-candidate Republican primary pack.

Danny Tarkanian at the Tarkanian Basketball Academy in Las Vegas. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

But the question for Heller and Tarkanian is whether the damage has already been done.

During his now aborted primary bid, Tarkanian’s strategy was simple and effective, as we’ve noted before: Assault Heller for being insufficiently pro-Trump — and insufficiently principled, especially when it comes to Obamacare.

“When [Heller] has seen a political advantage in attacking Obamacare, he has done so,” Tarkanian wrote in December. “When the tide seems to be running against repeal, he has opposed it and pushed back against calls for repeal.”

Tarkanian’s pitch was resonating in the primary because had a point: Heller had been all over the map on repeal. Tarkanian was also correct that Heller has waffled on Trump, declaring in 2016 that “I vehemently oppose our nominee” because he “denigrates human beings” but sounding (conveniently) friendlier after the pro-Trump Tarkanian entered the race. So far this year, Heller has collaborated with the administration on the tax bill, backed its immigration framework and boasted that he now enjoys a “much closer relationship” with the president than before.

Meanwhile, Nevada Democrats have been leveling the same attacks at Heller, claiming that his vacillations on Trump, health care and other policy issues prove that he’s more concerned with politics than principle.

Photo: Scott Sonner/AP

Being attacked from both sides has had a major impact on Heller’s approval rating, which fell nearly 10 percentage points during 2017, one of the largest declines in the Senate.

It appears that Heller’s biggest electoral liability wasn’t Tarkanian, per se, but the growing perception that he lacks the courage of his convictions, and that he will do or say anything to keep his job. With Tarkanian gone, Heller will now be tempted to tack back to the center. But that will only reinforce the perception of his spinelessness. To win in November, Heller had better hope that Nevadans’ memories are short.

Tarkanian’s brief Senate bid may also prove to be handicap for Tarkanian himself. Shortly after entering the race last August, the candidate huddled at Breitbart’s Capitol Hill headquarters with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon — and emerged with the nationalist rabble rouser’s imprimatur.

“[Bannon] told me he supported me 100 percent,” Tarkanian claimed in a BuzzFeed interview. “He said, ‘It was nice to see a candidate that exceeds my expectations.’ So I took that as a very good compliment.”

Since then, Tarkanian has taken pains to position himself as one of the most pro-Trump, Bannon-esque candidates of the cycle, espousing a hardline position on immigration and declaring that he believes “wholeheartedly” in all of “President Trump’s ‘America First’ policies.”

Tarkanian even refused to disavow Bannon after the president publicly broke with his former Svengali. “If Mr. Bannon chooses to support me in our effort to repeal and replace Dean Heller with someone who will truly have the president’s back, I welcome his support,” Tarkanian said at the time.

The question for Tarkanian is not whether he can win a GOP primary with this sort of scorched-earth strategy; he’s won five of them before, and he’s likely to emerge again in June as the party’s third-district nominee. The question is whether he can win a general election with it — particularly this year, and particularly in a district like NV-3.

Tarkanian’s electoral track record is not strong. In 2004, he ran for state Senate. In 2006, he tried for secretary of state. In 2010, he sought the nomination to run against Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, but lost in a primary to Sharron Angle. In 2012, he ran in Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District, ultimately losing to Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who lost the seat himself two years later. And then in 2016 he lost to Rosen.

“That’s kind of [Tarkanian’s] reputation,” a Nevada Republican strategist told BuzzFeed last year. “Like, oh God, him again?”

Danny Tarkanian speaks at a rally for candidate Trump in Las Vegas, June 18, 2016. (Photo: John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images)

Tarkanian came close to defeating Rosen in 2016, with Trump atop the GOP ticket. But 2018 will be different. Incorporating the southern suburbs of Las Vegas, NV-3 is one of the most evenly divided congressional districts in America, voting for Al Gore by 1 percentage point in 2000, George W. Bush by 1 percentage point in 2004 and Barack Obama by 1 percentage point in 2012. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton there — but again, by only a single percentage point.

In a midterm cycle when backlash against the president is likely to be powerful and Democrats have already demonstrated an ability to recapture congressional seats in districts that Trump won by 20 percentage points, running as a staunch Trump Republican in a 50/50 blue-state district will be a risky approach.

In the end, Trump’s decision to push Tarkanian out of the Senate race and into the NV-3 congressional contest was a smart political play that will help Nevada Republicans next November. Whether it will help them enough to win is another story.

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