Why in the World Is Dean Heller Leading in the Polls in Nevada?

A close read of one Senate race Democrats should be winning.

Side by side of Dean Heller and Jacky Rosen.
Dean Heller, Jacky Rosen. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Dean Heller for U.S. Senator of Nevada and Kristie Boyd/U.S. House Office of Photography.

In the past several weeks, most forecasters have lowered Democrats’ odds of taking back the Senate. Many red-state Senate polls have shown Republican candidates improving their positions in the post-Kavanaugh confirmation period. Perhaps heightened partisanship is the obstacle that can’t be overcome for Democrats who need to win in unfriendly territory. But this doesn’t entirely explain Nevada, a state where the Republican incumbent, Dean Heller, appears to now have a slight lead against Rep. Jacky Rosen. Nevada is a state that Hillary Clinton won, and in a Democratic year, it should be a very tough slog there for Heller.


To talk about what’s happening in the Nevada race, I spoke by phone with Jon Ralston, the editor of the Nevada Independent and an expert on the state’s politics. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.


Isaac Chotiner: Where do you think the race currently stands, and why?

Jon Ralston: The Senate race is within the margin of error, one way or another. There are a couple reasons it is so close. One is that the Nevada electorate is as polarized as the national electorate, and so the names are less important than party identification. The other is that Dean Heller has done everything he can to try to lose the race, and the reason he is still in it is that Jacky Rosen is so unknown, and they have been able to create doubts about her because she is so unknown.


What has Heller done to try to lose the race?

He has had every position you can imagine on repealing Obamacare. He stood with the governor here and said he couldn’t do it, and then Trump publicly threatened him in a video you have probably seen that went viral, and then he [votes] for repeal. Health care is a huge issue in the election. And they have created a “senator spineless” meme about his position, and I think it has really hurt him.

Given all this, and given how vulnerable people thought Heller was, and national enthusiasm for Democrats, isn’t it surprising he isn’t down?

First of all, present company excepted, of course, you national media types and your telescopic view think that Heller has been dead. I have heard this for months and months and months, mostly because he is the only Republican incumbent running in a state that Hillary Clinton won. And because he makes so many mistakes. But it just isn’t that way. The race has been within the margin of error all year long and people need to remember Heller has never lost a race.


Plus, many of these recent polls are not credible polls, Isaac, and Nevada is very difficult to poll. I don’t think they mean much now, other than that one is ahead by a little. It’s all about how you model the electorate. We will know a lot more when we have real voting numbers to go by starting Saturday, and we will know whether turnout is up or down. If it is way up from 2014 here, Democrats will do well and Heller is in trouble.

What do you think of the campaign Rosen has run?

She is never going to be confused with a dynamo, or Margaret Thatcher, in terms of her speaking ability or ability to rouse the faithful. But she is a very disciplined candidate, and I think her media campaign, with a few exceptions, has been very, very good at capitalizing on Heller’s weaknesses. But this campaign is not about Jacky Rosen. It’s about how [her campaign has] been able to amplify certain issues about Heller and create excitement about Donald Trump on the ballot by proxy.


How popular is Trump in the state?

Trump’s numbers here are not as bad as they are elsewhere. The polling shows him a few points underwater but not dramatically, mirroring Heller’s numbers actually. But Heller has totally changed on Trump. He was very close to a #NeverTrump guy in 2016 and is now counting on this being a totally base election. So now he has completely embraced Trump; they are having a love affair. Trump is coming this weekend to try and energize the faithful, especially in rural Nevada, where if the faithful [turnout] is really high it could skew the election.

Has the Hispanic vote not materialized for Rosen?

It’s a great question, and maybe the key question for all the races in Nevada, starting at the top of the ticket. Hispanic turnout is a big deal for the Democrats and they have managed to really boost it in the last three presidential cycles. It helped the Democrats win. But it dropped precipitously in the past midterm, and they had a wipeout from top to bottom. I know the Rosen campaign is very aware of it, and Democrats I talk to say it is not going to be the same as 2014. They only have to get it up a few points to make a big difference, because Heller is likely to lose if they get a high propensity of Latino voters out to vote.


There was all this talk about “Harry Reid’s machine” in the last several Nevada elections. What is the status of that machine now that he is not holding elective office?

The machine is still there; Reid is only tangentially there. He has some of his people still running it and they are very good. He still has his hand in things but to a much lesser extent. We won’t know how well the machine is operating until early voting starts. But in terms of the first stage, which is registering voters, they have done a very good job. They have really boosted their numbers in Clark Country—that’s the Democratic area of the state—where they need to build a firewall. You get so many votes banked in Clark Country that Republicans can’t make it up in the rest of the state. We will know after two or three days of early voting whether it’s working or not.

Jacky Rosen’s seat, NV-03, is competitive. Are you surprised?

I think it will be very close. These things can break late and the Democrats and the Republicans think it will be close. [Republican] Danny Tarkanian, who has been on every ballot for the last five or six cycles and never won a general election, came very close to beating Rosen in 2016. And that was a presidential year. I think the Democrats are pretty confident, but I don’t think it is by any means a sure thing to them.