If Republicans manage to retain control of the U.S. Senate this election, they will have U.S. Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) to thank. Control of the upper chamber may hinge on the outcome of a handful of elections, including the one in the race to succeed outgoing the Senate Democrat minority leader from Nevada, Harry Reid.
In a normal year, it would be easy to see Heck cruising to victory. After all, Heck has an impressive resumé. Before jumping into politics, Heck was a small business owner, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a medical doctor — exactly the type of citizen-legislator the Founders envisioned serving in office.
But what really sets Heck apart is that, unlike some Republicans who have been slow to adjust to an increasingly diverse electorate, he has spent years raising his name identification and profile with the state’s minority population.
“I remember Joe Heck reaching out to the Hispanic community back when he was in the State Legislature,” Chris Roman, a long-time Latino Nevada resident and political observer, told Opportunity Lives. “This was different than most Republicans at the time.”
Of course, this is not a normal year. Heck, like other Republicans in tight senate races across the country, has been caught up in a delicate balancing act of distancing himself from the one-man-wrecking crew that is Donald Trump while not upsetting rank and file Republicans who support their party’s presidential nominee.
Democrats know this. And in Nevada, tying Heck to Trump is the Democrats’ main strategy in this highly contested — and increasingly expensive — senate race.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., after the Nevada Senatorial Debate on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016 | Photo: AP
Democrats have nominated Catherine Cortez-Masto, a public servant who has spent a good chunk of her professional career in state government. Cortez-Masto served most recently as state attorney general. And in a state where the Latino population is quickly growing, Cortez-Masto touts her Mexican heritage on her father’s side. On the stump and in political advertisements, Cortez-Masto bills herself as a problem solver that has taken on big banks while fighting to protect the rights of children and families. She promises to do the same if elected to the U.S. Senate.
If elected, Cortez-Masto would become the first Latina U.S. senator. Republicans can claim the first Latina Republican governor with Susana Martinez in New Mexico. But in all the years of the U.S. Senate, there has been no Latina ever elected. Democratic Party strategist Andres Ramirez is excited about this possibility.
“As a Latino, I’m proud of what she has done for our community in Nevada and am excited to see her represent our community on the national stage,” Ramirez said.
But for Wadi Gaitan, press secretary for the LIBRE Initiative, a free market Hispanic advocacy group that is running online and broadcast advertisements against Cortez-Masto, identity politics is not enough to ignore what they consider terrible public policy positions.
Cortez-Masto opposes a measure that would allow Nevada parents to exercise more freedom in deciding where to send their children to school with the aid of an education savings account. The measure, signed into law last year by Gov. Brian Sandoval (also of Mexican heritage) was lauded by school choice advocates who see ESAs as a way of giving parents an alternative to the traditional public school choice model with greater ownership of state dollars earmarked for education.
Gaitan tells Opportunity Lives that Hispanic families are among the biggest recipients of ESAs and Cortez-Masto’s opposition speaks volumes.
“The most important characteristic for someone running for office is where they stand on the issues and whether they are supporting programs that are in the best interest of the community,” he said, adding that education is a top issue for Latino voters, especially in the Las Vegas area.
In one ad, the LIBRE Initiative accuses Cortez-Masto of “siding with special interests and her political friends instead of Nevada students.”
Immigration is emerging as a defining issue for both candidates. Fortunately for Heck, he has a long track record of being generally supportive of immigration reform. In fact, Heck in 2013 broke ranks with many fellow House Republicans by sponsoring legislation that would effectively legalize undocumented immigrants brought to this country as minors, so long as they are working toward receiving an education or a vocational career.
Because of Heck’s pragmatism on immigration, Democrats have had a harder time casting the doctor as a Trump clone. But that doesn’t mean that they are not trying.
“Heck has played politics with the issue of immigration reform, and as result compromised his integrity on the issue,” said Ramirez, the Democrat strategist. “Latinos are well aware of his flip flops on this issue and therefore do not support him or give him credit on this issue.”
Still, not all are all buying into this narrative. This includes Laura Nowlan, a Heck supporter who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. She says opposition to Heck among some in the Latino community is purely political.
“Heck has been helping Latinos for a long time,” Nowlan said. “In fact, he came up with [an immigration reform] bill finding support even among Democrats… In the end, they opposed it because they didn’t want a Republican to get the credit.”
Because of Heck’s pragmatism on immigration, Democrats have had a harder time casting the doctor as a Trump clone
But with salacious news dominating the headlines, immigration policy nuance is a tough sell. Nowhere is this more evident than when news recently broke that Trump had been caught on tape using vulgar language about women. Almost immediately, Heck called for Trump to withdraw from the race — a decision that drew the ire of Trump supporters.
Heck did find support, including that of Adriana Fralick, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Mexico. “I am proud of what he did. It took a lot of courage for him to do that,” Fralick said.
Heck will need to find that magic formula of getting out the Republican base while still drawing support from Latinos, the young, and suburban female voters like Fralick. If Heck comes up short, it would be a devastating blow to a Republican Party that needs to win elections in places like Nevada, which is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse by the year..
As in other states, such as Ohio where U.S. Sen. Rob Portman is leading according to most public opinion polls, Heck is counting on some voters in the Silver State to split their ticket, meaning some voting for Hillary Clinton while voting for the Republicans down ballot.
“If you have someone that is doing a really good job, your want to support that person and promote that person,” Fralick said. “Heck deserves to be promoted.”
On Election Day, Nevadans will not only determine whether Heck deserves that promotion, but they may also end up determining whether Republicans hang on to the Senate.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter:@IzzyOrtega.