Lost in the recent budget battle was Sen. John Ensign encouraging his fellow Republicans to back down on trying to defund Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions (even if federal funds don’t pay for those abortions). That’s what happens when you aren’t running again.
But Rep. Dean Heller is seeking Ensign’s job, and Rep. Joe Heck wants to keep the one he has. So Heller opposes the deal negotiated by Sen. Harry Reid (whose colleague he wants to be) and Speaker John Boehner (with whom Heller supposedly has a close relationship). Heck, though supports Reid’s deal. Both may well be acting entirely on principle, but both also are being politically cunning — at least, so they hope.
First as an assemblyman and then as secretary of state, Heller once belonged to a list of Republicans who Democrats felt they could talk to and work with. Oddly, the list also once included two other Republican state legislators. One, Jon Porter, won three terms in the House and seemed increasingly isolated from anyone outside the Republican right. The other was Brian Sandoval, who was not then running for vice president and thus determined to appeal to the GOP base.
That base is and must be Heller’s concern. When he ran for the House in 2006 in a district that encompasses a little of Clark County and all of the rest of Nevada, Sharron Angle almost beat him in the primary by running to his right. Heller hasn’t let anything like that happen again. When he announced for Senate, Sandoval and other leading Republicans made it a point to endorse him right away, obviously in hopes of precluding any primary challenge — and that challenge was almost certain to come from Heller’s right.
True, that challenge to Heller could have come from Clark County, from a Republican willing to do what Clark County Republicans never do: say they are putting geography before ideology, and run on a totally pro-southern Nevada platform. Heck is a Clark County Republican, but he faces an entirely different problem than Heller. Heck’s district is entirely within southern Nevada, and is divided. Heck also won by one of the smaller margins of any Republican who unseated an incumbent Democrat in 2010, so he has to be careful.
Throw in that he can’t be sure of the 2012 election — not because he’s in trouble, but because redistricting undoubtedly will affect him. He could end up in a safe seat or in a Democratic meat grinder, or, more likely, something approximating where he is now. That means being ideological enough to hold onto his base, but not so ideological that he can’t appeal to independents.
So, for both Heller and Heck, it’s a political dance, as always. As for Ensign — isn’t that a rank in the Navy?
Michael Green professor of history at CSN.