Joe Heck always takes the stairs. Aides are grateful his trips through the Longworth House Office Building cover only four floors. Ramen noodles and Diet Coke also help him maintain his fighting weight of 178 pounds. Two and a half years after Republican lawmakers elected in the tea-party wave of 2010 flaunted their frugality by taking up residence in their offices, Heck is still sleeping on a roll-away cot. “Food and sleep are for the weak,” he quips.
Heck’s background as an emergency-room doctor and an officer in the Army Reserve unwittingly prepared him for one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country, a swath of suburban Las Vegas with roughly 10,000 fewer Republicans than Democrats. The GOP congressman knows the law of the land is survival of the fittest.
Catch him if you can. Heck never takes the same route twice, a product of his military training, and the labyrinth of basement-level tunnels throughout the Capitol accommodates this security-conscious quirk. You’d be looking over your shoulder, too, if every major Democratic group in Washington—from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to the House Majority PAC to EMILY’s List—pinned a bull’s-eye on your back. It comes with the territory: Heck belongs to an unenviable club of only 15 Republicans clinging to districts won back-to-back by President Obama. One false move and he’s out. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is already squiring around his likely opponent in 2014, Erin Bilbray-Kohn, an attractive, 43-year-old political consultant expected to portray Heck as an out-of-step extremist.
It could be a tough sell. With his buttoned-down shirt tightly tucked into slacks, neatly cropped dark hair tinged with silver, and rimless glasses, the 51-year-old Heck is no gaffe-prone zealot. While Republican colleagues rant with abandon against “Obamacare,” he splits hairs. He opposes same-sex marriage but resists talking about the issue. “He’s not careless about giving ammunition to the enemy,” observes Dan Hart, a Las Vegas-based Democratic consultant. “This is a race that could come down to a percentage point or two if no one makes any mistakes.” The congressman rarely appears on Fox News and recently posted a link on Twitter to a picture of the back of his head at a 13-hour Armed Services Committee meeting. He’s a grinder, not a screamer. You got to do the job to keep the job.
Still, even a politician as disciplined and diligent as Heck can’t control the hyper-partisan, hyper-scrutinized Washington climate any more than he can control the weather. As cochairman of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in Nevada, Heck was put on the spot when the Republican presidential nominee recommended “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants. Earlier this month, Heck was sandbagged by his own son when the website BuzzFeed busted the 16-year-old for posting outrageously racist, antigay, and sexist comments on Twitter. (The congressman apologized.) A “tracker” armed with a video camera is already following Heck to public events. “I know, invariably, that something that I say is going to be taken out of context and put on YouTube,” he says. Heck can’t afford another slip, such as when he called Social Security a “pyramid scheme” in 2011 and more recently when he seemed to agree with a radio talk-show host that former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was used as a “prop” to promote gun control.
No issue is fraught with more peril for Heck than immigration reform. At a time when most of his Republican House colleagues represent relatively cozy, homogenous enclaves, Heck is feeling the squeeze of a booming population that is 16 percent Hispanic and 12 percent Asian-American. Leaders of those communities are urging Heck to back citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, while equally outspoken GOP supporters are pushing him to challenge birthright citizenship.
It’s a no-win situation for a politician who has to face the voters every two years. Reluctant to get off the fence, the affable congressman tries to bridge the policy gaps with crackerjack constituent services, whether he’s visiting all four locations of a popular Latin supermarket chain, glad-handing at a Republican women’s club meeting, or attending the funeral of a Filipino-American World War II veteran. His voting record looks like a takeout order from a Chinese restaurant, with a few items from column A and a handful of others from column B. “When I am making a decision, I don’t think about which constituents will be pleased, because if I did that I would end up voting ‘present’ all the time,” Heck says.
Heck walks through the Capitol unnoticed, but he could be a role model in a Republican Party that many believe has lost its way by veering too far to the right. A fiscal and social conservative who easily won reelection in a rapidly changing swing district carried by President Obama deserves a closer look. While rising stars such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul make a show of positioning themselves for 2016, Heck is quietly offering a road map to a GOP navigating an increasingly diverse electorate on the path back to the White House.
Unless, of course, he loses.
ZIGGING AND ZAGGING
Just a few miles south of the garish heart of the Las Vegas Strip lies Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District. This metropolitan area stretches from second-tier casino resorts to family-owned ethnic restaurants, from sprawling retirement communities to working-class neighborhoods, and from bland shopping centers to breathtaking mountain vistas. Created after the 2000 census to accommodate Clark County’s bursting population, the district has bounced back and forth between the two parties like dice on a craps table.
In the pre-Obama era, Republican Jon Porter navigated the swing district by occasionally breaking with his party and going so far as to play in a bipartisan congressional rock band. He lost his grip to an outspoken Democratic leader of the state Senate, Dina Titus, when Obama turned the state blue in 2008. A first-termer named Joe Heck also lost his seat in the state Senate that year, setting the stage for a bruising battle with Titus in 2010. Heck won by 1,748 votes. “I have nothing to say about Joe Heck,” sniffs Titus, who seems to carry a grudge although she came back to win an adjacent district in 2012. After redistricting narrowed the Democrats’ edge in Heck’s district, he won reelection handily against Democrat John Oceguera, who stumbled in television interviews over questions about Obama’s economic-stimulus funding and health care law.
While Obama won the district by only eight-tenths of a percentage point in 2012, Heck, too, has little room for error as he charts his own herky-jerky course in search of the sweet spot. Unlike many of his colleagues with predictable, party-line voting records, Heck jumps back and forth over the political equator. He backed the Violence Against Women Act but voted last week to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with limited exceptions. He agrees with the popular mandate for more background checks on gun sales but challenges the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made. He voted for the compromise on raising the debt ceiling in 2011 and for this year’s deal averting the fiscal cliff, but he signed antitax crusader Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. It’s a voting record that challenges labels like “tea party,” “conservative,” and “moderate.”
When it comes to Obama’s health care law, Heck is all over the map. He voted dozens of times with the GOP pack to repeal the Affordable Care Act and is sponsoring a “repeal-repair-replace” bill, yet he was among only 10 House Republicans who opposed Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s most recent plan to overhaul federal spending—in part, he said, because it banked on the law’s repeal for $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction. Heck also supports Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to accept federal money under the law to expand Medicaid coverage.
“Obamacare is not going anywhere,” Heck says. “There are parts I agree with and parts that I don’t agree with. I think we need to start concentrating on fixing the things that are wrong with it, as opposed to passing a budget to get $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction by repealing a law that we know we’re not going to be able to repeal.”
So why vote for repeal? “That’s the position I ran on, and I will continue down that path as long as I can,” he says.
Don’t think for a minute that Heck’s carefully parsed position means he will escape Democratic attacks for all those votes to repeal Obamacare as well as his previous votes for Ryan’s budget plan, which would dramatically overhaul Medicaid and Medicare. Heck displays a rare glimmer of envy when he talks about colleagues lucky to have heavily Republican constituencies. “When I hear folks that are in R-plus-15 districts complain about a vote they have to take,” he says, “I think, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ ”
Only six Republicans represent districts that are more Democratic than Nevada’s 3rd. In the past year, 30,000 new Democrats have joined the voter rolls in Heck’s territory, compared with about 18,000 Republicans and another 18,000 independents. That puts him in the unfortunate company of other swing-state, swing-district Republicans such as Scott Rigell of Virginia, Tom Latham of Iowa, and Mike Coffman of Colorado.
A demographic tide is also washing over Heck, a second-generation Italian-American whose mother’s parents came through Ellis Island. In just the past two years, Clark County’s Hispanic population grew by 5 percent and the Asian population by 6.4 percent, according to newly released U.S. census figures. Those communities also make up the fastest-growing share of the electorate nationwide, although gerrymandering has so far insulated many of his Republican colleagues in Congress.
“Heck’s district is changing demographically well ahead of the national average, so it’s an important test case for both parties’ look at what congressional races may feel like 10 and 20 years from now,” says David Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report. “This is exactly the kind of district standing between Democrats and the majority.”
The district is rated “even” by The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index, which means its performance in the 2008 and 2012 elections matches the national average. The 3rd District is America—packed into the southern tip of Nevada.
WALKING A THIN LINE
At the monthly meeting of the Southern Hills Republican Women’s Club at a country club in Henderson, the members are wearing pinks and peaches and mint green. After weeks of following coverage of immigration reform on Capitol Hill from Fox News and talk radio, they are eager to hear from their congressman. Most of them live in Sun City Anthem, which describes itself as “one of the nation’s premier master-planned communities, consisting of 7,144 recent vintage single-story energy-efficient homes.”
It’s the day after Memorial Day, and club President DaryllAnn Carter-Sulliman is dressed in a white pants suit and a red-, white-, and blue-beaded choker. She and other women didn’t flinch when asked about Heck’s support for more background checks on gun buyers, but they drew the line at immigration reform. “They should tighten the border and tell the others to go home,” Carter-Sulliman says. “They’re out there waving the Mexican flag and collecting benefits that I as a taxpayer am paying for.”
Carter-Sulliman refused to let a National Journal reporter invited by Heck’s office past the registration table near the lobby. Once he arrived, the easy-going congressman declined to pick a fight with the brassy club president, who quipped to the crowd, “You all know I fired my cleaning lady because she wasn’t Republican!”
Regardless, Heck’s speech could clearly be heard from the confines of the country club’s bar, filled with men unwinding from their morning round of golf. He sought to reassure the crowd that the immigration bill would not mean amnesty for 11 million people. Under the Senate version, he said, it could take undocumented workers 13 years to earn citizenship. “It’s not like the old days,” Heck said. He also tried to assuage concerns about “anchor babies” receiving automatic citizenship under the 14th Amendment. “If we’re going to have a debate over immigration reform, it should be part of the debate,” he said.
Heck wasn’t just pandering to his conservative audience; he had said something similar last year when he addressed the Hispanics in Politics group in Las Vegas. The 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution after the Civil War to overrule the Supreme Court’s notorious Dred Scott decision that denied citizenship to black slaves. The high court has subsequently ruled that the amendment confers citizenship on all children born on American soil, no matter the legal status of their parents. “We’re one of the only industrialized counties that grants birthright citizenship,” Heck added after the Republican meeting.
Hispanic leaders say it’s hard to reconcile Heck’s claim to be open to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with his willingness to question the widely held interpretation of the citizenship clause. That’s turf typically tread only by Republican hard-liners such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa and former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
Heck also rattled the Hispanic community when he voted for King’s amendment earlier this month cutting funding to Obama’s popular policy to halt deportations of illegal immigrants brought here as children. The national Democratic Party responded with a scathing Spanish-language radio ad against nine vulnerable Republicans, including Heck, who defended the vote as a repudiation of the president for sidestepping Congress with an executive order. But the vote feels personal, not political, to some of Heck’s supporters.
“It’s disappointing because I’ve heard him on talk-radio shows defending illegal immigrants for coming here to seek a better life,” said Joe Hernandez, an insurance-company president and a Mexican-American Republican who serves on Heck’s economic advisory board. “His vote has polarized many in the Hispanic community.”
In Las Vegas, as in other parts of the country with large Asian populations, immigration reform is not exclusively a Hispanic cause. One day after the Republican women’s meeting, about 15 miles north of the country club, heaping pans of Chinese lo mein and a Filipino noodle dish called pancit helped draw an ethnically diverse crowd of about 100 people to an immigration forum at the University of Nevada.
A half-dozen volunteers from Organizing for Action, Obama’s grassroots lobbying group, milled around with signs that read, “Attention congressional delegation: I’m a Nevadan who supports comprehensive immigration reform.”
The previous week, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, a Republican, had written a column in the local newspaper praising the bipartisan immigration-reform bill. A representative of Sandoval’s office came to the forum to present a proclamation commemorating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “Where’s Heck?” demanded 24-year-old Juan Serafica, looking the part of a revolutionary with spiked hair and a fitted blazer.
The congressman wasn’t there, but instead was attending a fundraiser for his reelection campaign. He had dispatched his 34-year-old Filipino-American field representative, Eric Guideng, who was quickly approached by a man worried about his brother, who was on verge of being deported to the Philippines. “He pays his taxes, he’s a good guy,” the man pleaded. “He has friends and neighbors who would be willing to vouch for him.”
These personal stories tug at Heck, just like the pleas from the seal-the-border Republicans. He’s looking for the elusive middle ground, for guarantees that border security will be stepped up before undocumented workers already here are allowed to stay. As far as those who were brought here as children, Heck favors a stringent version of the so-called Dream Act. Only those younger than 30 who have graduated from college or completed a military enlistment with an honorable discharge would be able to avoid deportation. “If this is the country that you grew up in and the country you know, we’re not going to take some 18-year-old and send you back,” he said. “At the same time, you have to show you are prepared to support yourself.”
Increasing the pressure on Heck: Nevada just passed a law that allows undocumented workers to apply for driving permits. Heck wouldn’t say whether he supports it. He is trying so hard to thread the needle. One good tug and the thread could break.
KEEPING THE JOB
Heck is seeking to hold onto his job the old-fashioned way, by acting more like a small-town mayor than a congressman who represents nearly three-quarters of a million people. He insists that his office take no more than two days to respond to the roughly 2,500 to 3,000 calls, letters, and e-mails received each week. "My legislative correspondents all have carpal tunnel," Heck jokes. In response to concerns from veterans in his district, Heck had Congress pass a law that makes it a crime to lie about receiving certain military rewards. After meeting with state wildlife officials, he sponsored a bill that would add quagga mussels to the national list of invasive species. He is also working on a bill dear to the Filipino community to help their surviving World War II veterans receive recognition from the U.S. government. You got to do the job to keep the job. It's a mantra Heck and his staff actually say out loud, consistent with his desire to stay out of a limelight that can only singe him. Look how it burned two other members of Heck's class of 2010, Joe Walsh of Illinois and Allen West of Florida, both Fox News loudmouths who lost their seats after only one term.
"There are some people who come to Congress to get on television. I don't think I've ever seen Joe Heck on TV," said Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a Republican who sits next to Heck on the House Intelligence Committee. "Unless he has something to add, he's not going to go on TV just to give talking points."
Heck sees himself as a model for a Republican Party trying to boost its image in minority communities amid the declining white share of the electorate. He outspent Titus on Spanish-language television in their closely contested 2010 race. His district office has three Spanish-speaking staffers. His economic advisory board includes representatives of the Latin Chamber of Commerce and the Peruvian Chamber of Commerce.
"Joe Heck was one of the first Republican candidates to actively engage Latinos in southern Nevada," said Chris Roman, a senior vice president at Entravision Communications, a Spanish-language television network that airs the top-rated local news broadcast in the Las Vegas area on weekdays. "His example has filtered down and his success, despite formidable odds, has resonated among other Republican candidates."
The outreach appears to have paid off; every public poll in Heck's last campaign found him earning at least 41 percent of the Hispanic vote. That's a high benchmark for a Republican, especially compared with Romney's 27 percent in the 2012 election. The disastrous showing spurred an exhaustive review by the Republican National Committee, which vowed to spend millions of dollars on minority outreach and recruitment.
"I did Hispanic outreach before Governor Romney was in the presidential race and I did it after," Heck says. "I've built a lot of personal relationships so that even when someone may not like my vote, they know who I am as a person and they won't hold it against me."
It's an intriguing theory and one that is being tested in the wake of Heck's vote on the deportation policy. Rozita Lee, adviser to the Nevada chapter of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, says that while she appreciated Heck's advocacy on behalf of World War II veterans, "we've lost our trust in him." A large, restless crowd is expected to greet Heck when he addresses the Hispanic in Politics group in Las Vegas next week.
"I would be really, really, really disappointed if he ended up voting against comprehensive immigration reform," says Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas, which has met privately with Heck. "The Republican Party needs to be able to get some credit for passing this legislation. Otherwise we'll have problems electing a Republican president for years to come."
The RNC review concluded the same: "We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only." At press time, the Senate was poised to approve sweeping bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, coupled with a massive increase in border patrols.
Immigration reform is far less certain in the House, where Republican leaders favor a piecemeal approach. Heck has kept his distance from the debate except to sponsor a bill backed by the tourism industry that would decrease the wait time for visa interviews—a tiny piece of safe ground.
THE COMING THREAT
What could push Heck off the fence? An immigration bill demanding his vote, for one thing. A good shove is also expected from Erin Bilbray-Kohn, one of the Democratic Party's shiniest recruits for the midterm elections.
Bilbray-Kohn is the Democratic committeewoman for Nevada and a consultant to Emerge Nevada, which trains female candidates. Her father is Jim Bilbray, who represented Las Vegas in the House from 1987 until 1994. She declined to be interviewed until her campaign is official, saying only in typical political consultant-speak, "If I do decide to run, I'm going to fight aggressively for Nevada's middle class."
Assuming she uses the traditional Democratic playbook, that will include attacks that frame Heck as a right-wing ideologue hostile to women, minorities, and the poor. That's the same strategy that portrayed Romney, who governed Massachusetts as a moderate, as an archconservative who would wage war against abortion rights, Planned Parenthood, and birth control.
Against a female challenger with a girl-power job, the "war on women" charge against Heck looks tempting, especially considering his recent vote to ban women from obtaining abortions after 20 weeks. That line of attack backfired, however, when Heck's last opponent accused him of shunning victims of rape and domestic violence in an incendiary television ad. Heck fired back with a spot starring his wife, Lisa, in which she acknowledged abuse by her first husband.
"I've stood up to a bully before, and I won't let John Oceguera push my family around now to advance his campaign," she said.
No wonder one of the women at the Republican club meeting called Lisa Heck "his secret weapon." Still, he's inoculating himself for the next campaign by sponsoring legislation to protect women in the armed services from sexual harassment and abuse.
Heck's modest upbringing—he was the first in his family to attend college—also helps counter the inevitable Democratic attacks that Republicans are hostile to unions and the middle class. When he was a child, his family lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment in Queens, N.Y. His father worked in a grocery store and was shot in a holdup.
"My dad couldn't work for three years, and if it wasn't for the union that he belonged to, my family probably would have starved," Heck says. By that time, he and his parents and two siblings were living in Long Island and faced losing their home to foreclosure. They moved to northeastern Pennsylvania. "It's one reason I really commiserate with people here in southern Nevada that are having a hard time staying in their homes," he says.
Heck also has picked teams carefully; he's a member of the little-known Bipartisan Working Group, not the House Tea Party Caucus. When the class of 2010 was spearheading pie-in-the-sky repeals of Obamacare, Heck's first bill was to renew and expand the Hoover Dam's electric-power contracts. When fellow Republicans were spewing big-government conspiracies behind the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of tea-party groups, Heck put out a brief, bloodless statement calling for "a thorough effort to not only hold all responsible individuals accountable but also put in place the proper protections."
Nothing controversial there, but his comments about the 14th Amendment will give Democrats and outside groups something to work with as they try to pry the House from GOP control.
"If Joe Heck is serious about being the moderate he's trying to portray himself, then he has some work to do," says Matt Inzeo, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The political brain trust behind Heck is Ryan Erwin, founder and president of RedRock Strategies in Las Vegas and the former head of the state parties in Nevada and California. The view from his office is of mountains, palm trees, and stucco roofs.
Calling Bilbray-Kohn a "true unapologetic liberal," Erwin argued that Heck is shielded from charges of partisanship by the gravitas that comes with being an emergency-room doctor and a colonel in the Army Reserve. He's deployed three times, most recently in 2008 to Iraq. "One thing that will be hard for them to knock down is the level of respect for Joe Heck that carries beyond partisan boundaries," Erwin says. "That is an asset that can't be taken for granted. It's character."
Just in case, Heck has set up a leadership PAC, a type of political committee that can collect and spend money with few strings attached. His traditional reelection account had raised nearly $300,000 as of the end of March, with big checks coming from the medical and gambling industries as well as Republican leaders such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas. He's braced for those ties to GOP leadership, as well as his votes on abortion and immigration, to become fodder in attack ads. "I vote a certain way and the Left calls me a tea-party extremist," he says. "I vote another way and the Right calls me a RINO (Republican in name only). I'll leave the labels to the political pundits."
Easy for him to say. But if either of those labels stick, Joe Heck is probably screwed.
Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.