I don’t do punditry much anymore, or try not to. But Senate primaries are relatively rare. And if we are lucky, a Danny Tarkanian challenge to Dean Heller in a Republican primary will rival the spectacle and hilarity we all found so entertaining the last time Nevada had a seriously contested Senate primary — in 2010, the year that Sharron Angle couldn’t beat Harry Reid, but Danny Tarkanian couldn’t beat Sharron Angle.
So I hope you’ll excuse a little idle speculation about some of the ways this thing could play out…
As you could see in the Heller campaign’s opening statement on Tarkanian, Heller and his handlers have no interest whatsoever in engaging Tarkanian on any issues, and not just because failing to engage issues is Heller’s default modus operandi. Heller’s people hope to get away with running the campaign equivalent of that ad from last cycle purporting to show Tarkanian burying his sketchy record in the desert. Heller’s campaign will try to brush off Tarkanian as a flake and a flimflam man and a five-time loser. It might work.
But if it doesn’t, if Tarkanian looks like a threat, Tarkanian’s unconditional love for Trump could force Heller to embrace the white identity politics at the heart of Trumpism.
Nevada Republicans have already indicated they expect typical midterm low turnout from Democrats, including and especially people of color. Past performances alone suggest that’s a good bet. But past performances don’t include any elections where the Republican president is the most corrupt and incompetent person ever to serve in the office. If he can get away with it, Heller would like to go through the entire election cycle without ever having to hear, much less say, the word “Trump.” But early signs indicate every, oh, sixth word coming out of Tarkanian’s mouth will be Trump. If that catches fire with the base, that could be bad for Heller — even if he beats Tark. All of which should hearten Democrats.
Another scenario, however, should alarm Democrats. If and when Heller’s campaign is confident Tarkanian’s character, conduct and electability have been sufficiently eviscerated within the GOP primary electorate, Heller’s handlers can direct their client to deliberately push back against Tarkanian’s Trumpist noise, so as to make Heller look like the “moderate” that the media inexplicably insists on calling him.
Tarkanian will be constantly helping on that score. For instance, when announcing his candidacy on (where else?) Fox & Friends, Tarkanian described Heller as not only “one of the first never-Trumpers in Nevada, he was one of the most influential.” Since Trump’s election, “Heller has obstructed his agenda,” Tarkanian complained, adding the senator’s “grandstand press conference” held with Gov. Brian Sandoval, “derailed any momentum to get the health care bill repealed.” That’s not how Democrats want Heller defined.
(Note: Below are a couple of additional gleanettes which came to mind after the original quick take).
There’s one other way that a Tarkanian challenge could turn — or could have turned — to Heller’s advantage in a general election: Heller could unload on Tarkanian as a mere rubber stamp for Trump, while proclaiming that since Republicans control the Senate, nothing is more important to Nevada and for that matter the nation than Republicans who are willing to stand up to Trump and who won’t be bullied by him. Of course, this would be a very tough sell for Heller, who lets Trump bully him.
If the race truly does get competitive next year, Adelson’s money will be fun to watch (inasmuch as it’s watchable in our post-Citizens United democracy) — not what he gives to candidates, but what he gives to outside groups that exist for the sole purpose of attacking candidates. Adelson’s mercurial so anything can happen, but presumably he’ll back Heller, at least nominally. But if Heller finds himself in trouble and Adelson isn’t financing some outfit or other’s anti-Tarkanian ads, that’d be a nasty rap on Heller’s knuckles. One wonders if a genuinely viable and sustainable Tarkanian campaign ultimately hinges on, at the least, an Adelsonian assurance of non-aggression. And remember, Heller has already lost one Adelson primary this cycle.