Joe Heck and the Politics of Disassociation

The Nevada congressman is seeking reelection in November—although the good doctor would rather you not know it

Joe Heck

Joe Heck

Joe Heck is a congressman.

You likely knew that … just not from watching one of Heck’s first ads of the 2014 campaign. It introduces him as “Doctor Joe Heck,” an emergency room doctor who also treated troops in Iraq, heals the sick and leaps tall operating tables in a single bound.

The ad refers to “Heck for Congress,” but says nothing about reelection. For the record: Heck is seeking his third term, and he is on the ballot for the fifth time in six elections, counting his state senate victory in 2004 (when the now-moderate Republican ran to the right of the most right-wing Republican in the Legislature) and his defeat for the state senate in 2008. Over the past decade, he has done more campaigning than prescribing, and more reinventing of himself than either of those.

Normally, this would be considered a typical “getting to know the candidate” ad. Understandably, Heck wants you to think of him as a lifesaving doctor. Tough to blame him. After all, who wants to admit to being a member of the current House of Representatives? Head lice score better in political polls.

Beyond that, Heck has made noise about immigration reform, prompting criticism from the left that he’s not sincere and from the right that he better not be sincere. House leaders won’t touch the issue, and he’s taken some hits for such actions as refusing to take on the speaker and trying to get something accomplished. But if he did really go after the House Republican leadership, they might just make him the junior member of the committee on mosquito netting.

So, silence is wise, as is running away from Congress. Heck is hardly the only one to do that this year. He’s also far from the first Nevadan to run for office by running from office:

  • In 1962, Rep. Walter Baring, once a New Deal liberal, announced his opposition to John Kennedy’s New Frontier and that he was now a Jeffersonian states-rights Democrat. Maybe he felt JFK’s program went too far, or he legitimately changed his ideology, or he saw that his strongest supporters in rural Nevada wouldn’t go for it. Or he knew that one of his biggest campaign contributors thought the John Birch Society was liberal. In the next six elections, more liberal-minded Southern Nevada Democrats challenged him in the primary, failing the first five times. So for Baring, running away from his past worked.
  • In 1968, U.S. Senator Alan Bible sought a fourth term and pointed to his success at harvesting federal pork. That success had been partly due to his close friendship with Lyndon Johnson, first when LBJ was Senate majority leader, then president. By 1968, though, Vietnam had destroyed LBJ’s popularity. Accordingly, Bible was hard-pressed to remember Johnson’s name during the campaign. He won, and he kept the president’s friendship; master politician that he was, LBJ understood.
  • In 1994, Republicans won the House for the first time in 40 years, in particular taking down longtime incumbent Democrats across the country—including Jim Bilbray, Nevada’s four-term congressman whose daughter Erin is Heck’s general-election opponent in November. That year, U.S. Senator Richard Bryan, a Democrat, easily won a second term by running one of the most brilliant political campaigns in Nevada history. His GOP opponent, Hal Furman, had been an aide to Senator Paul Laxalt and a deputy interior secretary under Ronald Reagan—a spectacular pedigree—but then became a lobbyist/consultant before choosing to oppose Bryan.

Bryan’s campaign responded by depicting Furman as a government guy while Bryan had dedicated his life to making government run better as an assemblyman (1969-72), state senator (1973-78), attorney general (1979-82), governor (1983-88) and U.S. senator (since 1989). Except the Bryan campaign didn’t talk much about all that experience—just that he had tried so long to make government better. It worked. Bryan won by 10 percent.

Yes, these three examples were Democrats, the party normally associated with being pro-government, while Heck’s fellow Republicans position themselves as anti-government (and anti-politician). But whatever the party, come election season, politicians know how to operate—especially when they’re doctors.

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