Nevada Republicans Look Toward an Uncertain 2018

“What’s past is prologue,” said Mr. Shakespeare, and that makes leading Republicans the happiest unhappy people, or unhappiest happy people, in Nevada. They hope the past is prologue, but they also have reason to worry about their future, as their president and his Congress eliminate everyone else’s.

In Washington, D.C., Republicans have the opportunity to govern—and Democrats seem eager to help them show how hard that is. Not that Republicans need the help, thanks to Trump’s Cabinet nominees: a health secretary who opposes health, a secretary of state who may love Vladimir Putin even more than his president, a housing and urban development secretary who thinks his department is a movie that starred Paul Newman, and an education secretary who hates public education and those who work in it, but thinks school is a good place for kids to learn to shoot grizzlies.

Then there’s the treasury secretary who forgot about $100 million in assets and whose love for foreclosures makes Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life look like Jimmy Carter. Among those who drove home that point was Dean Heller, representing the top state for foreclosures (Yay, Nevada!) who is, lest we forget, a Republican who still won’t say whether he voted for his party’s presidential nominee.

Heller has been properly mealy-mouthed or closed-mouthed about this transparently incompetent band of cabinet appointees. But his questioning of Steven Mnuchin, the hedge fund expert assigned to cause another recession, was somewhere between riveting and brilliant. Nor did it hurt that one of those attacking Mnuchin was Heather McCreary, a victim of one of his “loan modifications” from Sparks.

Heller’s questioning certainly heartened those Nevadans who pushed Democrats across the finish line in all major races, but also begged other questions. If he supports Mnuchin in committee or on the floor, he looks like a complete hypocrite. If he opposes the nominee, does he hurt his standing with the Senate GOP leadership, especially Mitch McConnell, whose wife will be a cabinet member?

More crucially, will he hurt his chances of reelection in Nevada by irking his base? Heller has done a fascinating dance since winning in 2012, thanks to the Democrats who were idiotic enough to vote for Barack Obama for president but not for Shelley Berkley for the Senate, partly because they believed some—pardon the phrase—trumped-up ethics charges against her, partly because some northern Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Las Vegan. He has paid lip service to bipartisanship, even including on his website a link to examples of legislation he has introduced with Democrats.

At the moment, Democrats have no anointed senatorial candidate, which is no big deal, because there’s time. But they don’t really have any candidates being discussed, and that’s a big deal. And thereby hangs the tale.

If [Sandoval] wants to protect his legacy, he has to have the right successor, not a far-right successor.

In theory, Nevada Republicans should be scared to death about 2018. Democrats have a large voter registration advantage. Brian Sandoval, who’s undeniably popular with everybody but his party’s base, won’t be on the ballot. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, it’s logical to expect Democratic gains.

But Adam Laxalt started the dominoes falling without making anything official. Nevada’s attorney general—who is so far to the right that he’s in danger of tipping over—wants to be governor or senator or president or maybe something higher. Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents the still safely Republican northern district, were both interested in coming home and running for governor. Instead, Heller announced for re-election and Amodei made it clear he would run for re-election or state attorney general (and when a House member says he’ll come home to run for that office, he really wants out of Washington). Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison declared he wouldn’t run for governor, either.

Sandoval reportedly prefers his top aide for economic development, Steve Hill, as his successor. There’s no love lost between Sandoval and Laxalt, putting Sandoval in a position similar to that of Barack Obama: If he wants to protect his legacy, he has to have the right successor, not a far right successor.

Laxalt beat an attractive candidate, then–Secretary of State Ross Miller, for attorney general in the 2014 sweep—the kind of sweep Democrats hope for in 2018. Since Democrats don’t always show up for midterms, and their front-runners for governor are from southern Nevada, they could have problems beyond Laxalt’s right-wing support, especially from the neighborhood of The Venetian. Democrats will have to overcome a united front in northern Nevada.

Of course, Republicans could divide, and it shouldn’t be hard for Democrats to tie them to the disaster swirling at the White House. The Shakespearean quote above is from The Tempest. You never know what effects a big orange storm might have.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.