How Dean Heller’s ‘Signature’ Moment Could Derail His Political Career

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Dean Heller sure knows how to make headlines—and, no, I’m not referring to his ability to regularly serve up fodder for journalists … at least not in this instance.

In case you missed it, Heller is one of 47 Republican U.S. senators who signed a letter drafted by Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., which (erroneously) lectured Iranian leaders on the Constitution and tried to sabotage negotiations over Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Now, we could focus on the fact that Heller and his colleagues may have violated the Constitution and a federal law (in fact, more than 165,000 Americans signed a petition to urging their prosecution). Or that their letter read like the work of a petulant third-grader. Or that whatever your politics, Republicans set a terrible precedent that could come back to bite them in the fanny at some point when a GOP president does something a Democratically controlled Congress doesn’t like.

Instead, let’s zero in on how Heller’s lapse in judgment could damage him politically. Admittedly, that matters less to the rest of the country than whether Iran has a bomb or Republican leaders require adult supervision, but it ultimately may mean more for Nevada.

Consider one of the front-page links on Heller’s Senate website. Addressing the Senate’s passage of a bill favoring construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and the 42 permanent jobs it would create, Heller declared: “This marks the dawn of a new era in the Senate. Today’s vote was held in a bipartisan manner with an open process where members were allowed to offer their amendments. This was the exact way the Senate was designed to operate.”

To paraphrase Daffy Duck as Robin Hood, that was an attempt to put a cloth-yard shaft through Harry Reid’s wishbone. But it also reflected Heller’s quest to depict himself as a reasonable, bipartisan Republican.

That certainly described the old Heller, once a respected state assemblyman and secretary of state when Carson City was becoming more partisan (but less insane) than it is today. When then-Congressman Jim Gibbons returned home from Washington, D.C., to run for governor in 2006, Heller ran for Congress. In the primary, he faced Gibbons’ then-wife, Dawn, and none other than Sharron Angle, and barely defeated both. Heller then won the general election by the narrowest margin in that district’s history.

That experience appears to have inclined Heller to slide further to the right. And he’s not alone: Heller’s House successor, Mark Amodei, tried to sound like a moderate Republican when he was a state senator. Then, upon arriving in Congress, Amodei ran campaign ads warning of a Chinese invasion of the Capitol.

Congress confronts different issues than elected officials at the state level, which is why discipline matters on major votes—so long as those votes don’t negatively affect the home folks. (Prime example: Most Republicans in Congress favor a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, but Nevada’s Republican delegation could hardly be expected to vote for it.)

But when Heller ran statewide for the U.S. Senate, he had to both feed red meat to his base and appeal to less loyal Republicans and even to Democrats. To win again in 2018, he must do the same.

Which is why choosing to add his signature to that letter to Iran didn’t make political sense: Heller very possibly could’ve alienated voters back home who might be tempted to vote for him solely because of his supposed reasonableness.

Sure, Heller has gambled politically in the past. He’s made bipartisan noises on such issues as immigration—where Republicans regularly make every effort to push away Hispanic voters (if not impede their ability to vote)—even at the risk of appearing too soft to Republican supporters. But that’s vastly different than signing a letter that hurts his country—that kind of roll of the dice is just foolish, and one his constituents won’t be quick to forget.

After all, it isn’t just 2016 that’s closer than it appears; so is 2018.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.