The Slatest

How Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS Nomination Could Sink the GOP’s Most Vulnerable Senator

Sen. Dean Heller (L) meets with Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in his office on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Dean Heller (L) meets with Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in his office on Capitol Hill.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Political observers are quite familiar by now with the Brett Kavanaugh–shaped dilemma facing red-state Democratic senators this year: They don’t want to alienate their liberal base by voting for Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, but they also need to win over a substantial slice of Trump voters this fall. For now, the vulnerable incumbents have settled on making a show of not making up their minds, hoping voters will see indecision as independence.

Faced with a similar quandary from the opposite side, however, the most vulnerable Republican senator—arguably the only one—up this November never hesitated. Sen. Dean Heller was hyping the prospect of an opening on the high court as far back as March, and he urged his colleagues to confirm Trump’s pick even before the president made it. The senior senator from Nevada then joined Trump at the White House for the official announcement earlier this month, and after meeting with Kavanaugh in private last week, Heller lauded him as a “mainstream jurist” and an “exceptionally qualified nominee.”

Heller’s early support comes with considerable risk, though. Heller is the lone Republican senator up for re-election this year in a state that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And after “vehemently” opposing candidate Trump that year, Heller has increasingly embraced President Trump. The GOP attempt last year to repeal Obamacare was an illustrative example: After opposing one bill, Heller eventually bowed to Trump’s pressure to vote for a narrow version. “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump told reporters as Heller looked on nervously at the White House. The president rewarded Heller for his eventual loyalty by clearing the GOP primary field for him this spring, and coming to Nevada to stump for him this summer.

All of that would have made it difficult for Heller to dither over his Kavanaugh decision, but if he had, he could have presented it as evidence that he’s not the rubber stamp for Trump’s agenda that Democrats argue he is. Instead, Heller is betting big that joining the sure-to-be-messy confirmation fight will impress Nevada Republicans, many of whom remain skeptical about just how conservative Heller is.

Nevada Democrats, unlike those in red states like North Dakota or West Virginia, seem eager to have the SCOTUS fight. Their well-funded nominee, first-term Rep. Jacky Rosen, isn’t in any position to cast a vote, but she told Politico this week that while she’s still doing her homework on Kavanaugh, “right now I couldn’t see myself voting yes” to confirm him. Unlike Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, and other vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Rosen has the luxury of coming out against Kavanaugh now because her path to victory doesn’t necessarily require winning over Trump voters. If the Senate-race vote breaks down between the two parties the same as it did in the presidential race, Rosen will beat Heller and head to Washington next year.

Rosen doesn’t have much room for error, though—Clinton won Nevada by a little more than 2 points and with only a plurality of the total vote, even though Obama won it by far larger margins twice. But a contentious confirmation fight could help her improve on Clinton’s numbers. A clear majority of Nevadans believe abortion should be legal in most cases, giving Rosen the chance to play up Kavanaugh’s expected role in gutting Roe v. Wade. And in a NIMBY twist, Kavanaugh once issued a ruling from the U.S. appellate bench that effectively thwarted the Obama administration on the one issue that unites both parties in Nevada: scrapping plans to create a massive federal repository for America’s nuclear waste about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The Yucca Mountain project, as it’s known, dates back to the Reagan administration and has long been a top priority for the nuclear industry and its Republican allies in Congress, but derailing it has largely been a bipartisan goal in Nevada. Both Heller and Rosen have taken credit for helping slow down the plan, but Democrats are already trying to wield Kavanaugh’s ruling as a weapon against Heller. They can also point to Trump’s support for the project to make their case.

It doesn’t take much in this deep purple state to tip a Senate race to one party or another. Heller won his first full term six years ago by less than 2 percentage points, or about 12,000 votes of nearly 1 million cast. The last Senate election was also a squeaker, with Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto eking out the win by a little more than 2 points over her GOP opponent, who withdrew his endorsement of Trump a month before Election Day after the Access Hollywood tape. In both years, roughly 4 percent cast protest votes for “None of these candidates,” an option on the Nevada ballot.

Faced with that treacherous political landscape, Heller appears to have put his faith in Trump, believing the president will attract more Nevadans than he will repel this year. It’s unclear whether Heller had any other option if he wanted to survive his primary, but it’s a curious decision in a state Trump didn’t win two years ago.