Dumping Trump in Nevada Comes With Risk for GOP Senate Hopes

  • Senate control hinges on race for Harry Reid’s Senate seat
  • Cortez Masto sees lead in polls after Trump tape sparks exodus

U.S. Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto speaks on Oct. 12, 2016, in Las Vegas.

Until 10 days ago, Republicans smelled victory in Nevada, looking to save their endangered Senate majority by taking retiring Democratic leader Harry Reid’s seat, even if Donald Trump loses the battleground state.

Then came the decade-old video of Trump boasting about groping women.

Representative Joe Heck greets supporters on Nov. 6, 2012, in Las Vegas.
Representative Joe Heck greets supporters on Nov. 6, 2012, in Las Vegas.
Photographer: David Becker/Getty Images

A day after the tape came out, Republican Congressman and Senate candidate Joe Heck, abandoned Trump, to boos from some of his own shocked supporters in Las Vegas. At a debate with his opponent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto on Friday, he talked in searing terms about his reversal.

“My wife was the victim of domestic abuse in a prior relationship. So the decision I made was an extremely personal decision,” Heck said, noting he also treated female victims of domestic violence when he worked as an emergency room doctor.

Heck and fellow Republicans hope Trump supporters will accept that explanation and still back him. Both parties see the road to Senate control running through Nevada, and since the tape surfaced, Heck went from narrow favorite to underdog.

To control the Senate, Democrats need to win four seats if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. The RealClearPolitics polling average now has them favored to take exactly four seats, including Nevada.

Switching Votes

John Ferrielo and his wife Michele, of Henderson, Nevada, are among voters dissatisfied with both political parties who are leaning toward Trump. Ferrielo has quit the Democratic Party, and she’s switched back and forth between the two parties and is considering becoming an independent.

“It does make me not want to back Heck because he seems part of the same political establishment that Hillary Clinton is part of and they don’t want a political outsider like Trump to come in and spoil their party,” Ferrielo said.

He added that the tape “seemed like a fake reason to pull his support, because you know, I mean, what about all the sexual misconduct when Bill Clinton was president and everybody seemed to forgive him about it?”

His wife said her mind was made up too. “I’m voting for Cortez Masto,” she said.

Heck had been narrowly leading Cortez Masto in most polls, but suddenly is running behind in several, including 52-to-45 percent in a CNN/ORC poll released Monday -- her best result to date. A separate poll by Monmouth University, released Tuesday, has Heck leading by three points, within the poll’s margin of error.

‘Abandoned Ship’

Heck has been attacked online by Trump backers and a Nevada member of the Republican National Committee, Diana Orrock. While polls show most Trump voters are sticking with Heck, some now say they will vote for Cortez Masto or for none of the above.

“I think those Republicans who have abandoned ship forget who they work for and who voted for them,” Orrock said. “A lot of people are willing to vote for Trump and abandon the down-ballot races.”

Heck’s own volunteers have split feelings over his decision.

Republicans Cathie Lynn Gisi and her husband Art have been volunteering in Heck’s campaign for months, canvassing door-to-door. But they’ve opposed Trump from the start, turned off by his language.

“How could anybody support this man?” she asked, adding a “hallelujah” at Heck’s abandoning him. “To me it’s the only right thing to do.”

The duo, who had backed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, plan to cast their presidential votes for “none of the above.”

Other Heck volunteers remain disappointed.

Danette and Jim Schmidt of Las Vegas wished Heck was still backing Trump, citing the Supreme Court. “I was not happy with his decision on that particular issue but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to vote for Joe,” he said.

Repairing Breach

Heck didn’t sound too concerned talking to reporters at his headquarters in Henderson, southeast of Las Vegas, on Saturday.

“We knew there was going to be some fallout,” he said. “Once the, I think, initial shock or disappointment wears off, then a lot of them will come back home.”

Heck, who is now making the case that Senate control is essential to Republican aims no matter who is president, said he hadn’t been considering rescinding his endorsement before the tape hit, despite Trump’s many controversial comments.

“This happened and it just kind of struck a nerve,” he said. “When you look retrospectively you see perhaps a pattern of comments and behaviors that culminated in this moment.”

Blasting Heck

But Cortez Masto continues to blast Heck for having told reporters he had high hopes Trump would be elected and telling CNN he was comfortable with Trump’s finger on the nuclear button.

“He was one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters here in Nevada,” she said in an interview Saturday. “He doesn’t get to walk away.”

She chalked up his switch to pure politics.

“We all could see Donald Trump was imploding and Congressman Heck saw that and he knew he would have to worry about his political career imploding as well, so he unendorsed him. He doesn’t get credit for it,” she said.

A former two-term state attorney general who touts a $1.9 billion settlement from banks over the mortgage crisis, Cortez Masto would be the Senate’s first Latina senator. Before the Trump meltdown, she had struggled to gain traction, hit by tens of millions of outside money from groups aligned with the Koch brothers and other conservatives.

Military Air

Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserves who won his House seat in the 2010 tea party wave, is spending this week on active duty and off the campaign trail before returning for the home-stretch. His campaign has a military air about it, with talk of presidential-level data analytics and targeted voter outreach. Heck told reporters he sees the rise of a Republican political machine in Nevada to replace Reid’s after 2016.

At Heck’s office, there is no sign that Trump is on the ballot. Like many other Republicans, Heck has long been focused on running his own race. And while Heck won’t campaign with Trump, other Republicans, including the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are making appearances for Heck.

Cortez Masto has her own backers, including the Culinary Workers Union, which represents 57,000 workers. They have buses ready to take voters to the polls when early voting starts Oct. 22, and are canvassing neighborhoods, said Harry Grill, political director for UNITE Here.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at the Culinary Workers Union hall in Las Vegas last week, praised “this Latina woman who is tough as nails.”

“The reason they are frightened is because they know she won’t back down,” Biden said.

Democrats Coordinated

In comparison to the fractured Republicans, Democrats boast a top-to-bottom coordinated campaign in the state, with competitive congressional candidates and Clinton in sync.

Cortez Masto is appearing with a steady stream of Democratic Party heavyweights, including Clinton and Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Tim Kaine and Cory Booker. And she’s running radio ads featuring President Barack Obama.

Heck, though, confidently recounts how he easily outperformed Romney in 2012 in his congressional district, and won 40 percent of the critical and growing Latino vote -- far more than Trump can expect. Heck hews to a more moderate line on immigration than Trump, expressing support for legislation to legalize children brought to the U.S. by their parents, though he opposed the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill.

Democrats plan to counter that by placing posters in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods with Heck and Trump’s heads, labeling them as the same.

Reid Factor

The race has also at times sounded like a referendum on the legacy of Reid, who has held the seat for 30 years. Reid’s long had high unfavorable numbers in the state, prompting Heck to repeatedly tar Cortez Masto as his “handpicked” successor.

And it probably doesn’t help Cortez Masto that Reid keeps calling her “my candidate.”

Still, she doesn’t shy away from her alliance with Reid, saying she is grateful for his support.

That said, she added, “He’s not on the ballot. I’m on the ballot.”

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