Ahead of Tough 2018 Battles, Heller Embraces Tax Reform

Why the GOP’s most vulnerable senator is all-in on the party’s biggest priority

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., shake hands at a news conference Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/John Locher
Nov. 29, 2017, 8 p.m.

Of all the senators that Republican leaders are trying to appease in order to pass a massive overhaul of the tax code, one vote they haven’t had to sweat over is that of the most vulnerable member of their conference.

With the prospect of not only a daunting general-election fight, but a primary challenge looming next year, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada has fully embraced the party’s contentious tax-reform legislation. Though Heller tried to stake out a middle ground during the Obamacare-repeal efforts, he has established himself as an early and strong proponent of the tax package, making a point to highlight his work on the bill as his reelection campaign begins in earnest.

As the only Senate Republican running for reelection in a state Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 election, Heller’s advocacy for tax reform certainly carries some risk, given that nearly every national poll has shown more Americans oppose than support the measure. But with most Republican voters and interest groups backing the bill, and with few accomplishments to show for the first year of full GOP control of Washington, Heller has calculated that throwing his full weight behind tax reform is his best path forward.

“He’s passionate about the issue. He understands what’s at stake economically and from the standpoint of people living prosperous lives back home in Nevada. His intentions are based on all the right things,” Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips said of Heller. “But when you think about this Senate and House majority, I would not want to be running if I was one of those eight Republican incumbents up next year if they fail on tax reform.”

While Heller is one of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate, he has long been a conservative on taxes. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, he has been involved with the GOP’s tax-reform effort from the beginning. Most notably, he successfully included a provision in the Senate’s bill that would double the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 and expand eligibility for it.

In his latest effort to help push tax reform across the finish line, Heller appeared at an AFP-sponsored event on Capitol Hill Wednesday with fellow GOP Sens. Thom Tillis and David Perdue. But Heller brushed off a question from National Journal about what the bill might mean for his political prospects.

“I can give you a lot of reasons why getting tax reform done is important outside my campaign itself. I believe the ultimate reason and purpose is to help the average middle-class family,” Heller said. “There’s political implications to this, but it’s not nearly as important as the impact it has on the average American family.”

Still, Heller has signaled that the tax-code overhaul will play a significant role in his campaign. In his first TV ad of the 2018 campaign, released earlier this month, Heller said the Senate should stay in session “24/7” until it passed tax reform and confirmed judges for all the open posts. And last week, he wrote an op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal touting the plan.

This stands in contrast to the way he handled the last major Republican policy priority, repealing and replacing Obamacare. Heller opposed the GOP’s initial health care plan over the summer before signing on to a proposal introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy in the fall, drawing the ire of both the Right and the Left in the process.

Now, Heller is under fire only from the Left. The liberal group Not One Penny launched an ad campaign that it said was worth “seven figures” targeting Heller last week, accusing him of supporting lower taxes for the wealthy and businesses at the expense of the working class. And Heller is sure to face attacks from the likely Democratic nominee in Nevada’s Senate race, Rep. Jacky Rosen. She voted against the House’s tax-overhaul package earlier this month, calling it “unfair and costly.”

“Under normal circumstances, when you talk about taxes, Republicans win and Democrats lose. But in this case, I don’t think, at least up to this point, Republicans have done a good job of selling this tax plan,” said Dan Hart, a veteran Nevada Democratic strategist. “In fact, I think if you survey Nevada, it would be much like the rest of the country.”

No public polling has been done in Nevada on tax reform, but around the country reviews have not been positive thus far. According to a FiveThirtyEight average of national surveys conducted over the past month, 32 percent of Americans support the plan while 46 percent oppose it.

But those polls also show a majority of Republicans are still in favor of the legislation, a sign that Heller may be more worried about his right flank at the moment. He has distanced himself from President Trump at times, and former House candidate Danny Tarkanian is challenging him in the GOP primary.

“There’s no political explanation for him embracing this bill so firmly other than being worried about the primary,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who worked on former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s campaigns in Nevada.

Heller’s allies, though, are confident the tax-reform bill will be a net-plus once the dust has settled.

“The reaction is mixed right now because it’s not in final form,” said Pete Ernaut, a Nevada Republican political consultant and longtime friend of Heller’s. “There’s a lot of back and forth as to what it really does. When the merry-go-round stops and they’re actually voting on the bill, I think that will be the point in which the polls actually matter.”

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