How Dems Found Their Heller Challenger

While the establishment rallies behind Rep. Jacky Rosen in the Nevada Senate race, Rep. Dina Titus is still considering a bid.

Harry Reid is firmly behind Rep. Jacky Rosen as the 2018 Nevada Senate race takes shape.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
July 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

Senate Democrats are hanging their midterm hopes on a former synagogue president and computer programmer who is only seven months into her political career.

In battleground Nevada, Rep. Jacky Rosen has emerged as the Democratic establishment’s pick to take on Sen. Dean Heller, who is by far the most vulnerable GOP incumbent on a map tilted heavily in Republicans’ favor.

Rosen’s path to this race was in many ways unlikely, and party leaders hope to smooth her road to the nomination by avoiding a costly intraparty battle with Rep. Dina Titus, who has been considering a bid for months.

“I’m going to let Congresswoman Titus do what’s right for her and her family,” Rosen said in an interview. “And I’m going to keep my head down and focus.”

Rosen almost immediately boasted support from key leaders upon entering the race earlier this month. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, EMILY’s List, and, importantly, former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid all lined up behind Rosen in an effort to keep the field clear.

Several Nevada Democrats predicted that Titus, who got her political start nearly 30 years ago, would begin a primary with a slight advantage. But Democratic leaders see Rosen, who holds a swing seat once represented by Titus, as the stronger general-election candidate in a state notoriously more challenging for the party in midterm years.

“From key leaders and people who helped with this process, there’s a lot of concern,” Nevada Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez said. “The more money we spend on a primary, the less resources we have for the general election.”

Rosen ascended from relative obscurity last cycle as Reid’s chosen recruit in the state’s competitive 3rd District, after Nevada Democrats spent months hunting for a candidate. She wound up winning the Las Vegas-area open seat, even as Donald Trump narrowly carried it.

Rosen said she first began having serious conversations about the Senate race in June. She downplayed Reid’s influence in her decision-making process, calling her family the critical factor.

“He’s a good friend; he’s a mentor,” Rosen said. “And I am proud to have his support along with many others.”

Democrats are taking special interest in Heller because he is the only Senate Republican facing reelection in a state Hillary Clinton won, and because they believe he is caught in a tricky bind between the competing pressures of his Trump-supportive base and the more moderate voters who could swing the election.

At the start of the cycle, Nevada Democrats described a fluid field of potential Heller opponents, devoid of a single obvious challenger. After a disastrous 2014 cycle, several of their most well known stars, including Ross Miller and Steven Horsford, were swept out of office.

Both of those Democrats were initially floated among several possible candidates. But it was Rosen, fellow freshman Rep. Ruben Kihuen, and former state Treasurer Kate Marshall who were eyed most seriously as recruits, according to a Democrat familiar with the process.

In Rosen, Democrats recognized key assets early on.

The congresswoman’s profile as a political outsider impressed party leaders, who viewed her as a disciplined candidate during a grueling 2016 race and believed her success winning voters in a swing region translated well to a statewide bid.

Kihuen, who hails from a district that leans far more Democratic, confirmed in an interview that he was approached about a bid earlier this year, but he said he has been focused entirely on his current job.

Some Democrats believed Marshall was saddled with baggage from losing her last statewide race in 2014, for secretary of state. And, because she was the state treasurer when the recession hit, Republicans could have launched ready-made attacks against her.

Marshall, Titus, and Rosen all have strong relationships with EMILY’s List, which considers the race a top priority. The group, president Stephanie Schriock said, ultimately determined that Rosen was best equipped for a general election and spoke with her a couple of times as the congresswoman deliberated.

“We felt very strongly that we’ve got to win this seat,” Schriock said. “And we wanted to get in fast.”

EMILY’s List could play a significant role in a primary between Rosen and Titus. The group’s independent-expenditure arm shelled out $1.8 million in the Pennsylvania Senate primary last year, aimed at boosting its endorsed candidate, Katie McGinty.

Democrats said Reid’s support could also go a long way toward aiding Rosen against Titus.

“He carries a lot of credibility, particularly among Democrats,” said Kihuen, who is backing Rosen as well. “People trust him.”

Titus has a history of bucking Reid—with success. In 2012, Reid tried to install Kihuen, then a state senator, in the 1st District. Titus entered the race anyway, Kihuen backed off, and Titus won the seat.

Some Democrats remain skeptical that Titus will do the same thing this time. She raised just $96,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter, which does not signal an imminent statewide bid. Titus critics also shot down her viability in a general election, pointing to her gubernatorial loss against the scandal-tarred Jim Gibbons in 2006, a Democratic wave year.

The current dynamic offers similarities to last cycle, when Reid quickly marshaled support for his preferred successor, now-Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, while Titus was still considering a bid. Titus ultimately stayed out of that race, but she is once again showing no fear of crossing Reid.

“If we’ve learned anything from the last election, it’s that people are tired of the establishment telling them what to do,” Titus said in an interview. “So I feel confident I can win a primary.”

As Democrats brace for a potential primary, Heller could face one as well. Heller, a Trump critic during the presidential race, further inflamed tensions with the White House when he opposed the Senate health care bill—and Trump called him out for it Wednesday during a White House meeting with Senate Republicans.

Danny Tarkanian, who was the GOP nominee against Rosen last year, has already said he may take on Heller. But in an interview, Tarkanian, who was initially considering another run in the 3rd District, sounded more energized by the prospect of facing Rosen again than any ideological issue with Heller.

“For Jacky to be in the Senate race,” he said, “it changed my feeling.”

Ally Mutnick contributed to this article.
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