Nevada Sen. Heller is vulnerable, and first-term congresswoman Jacky Rosen wants to take him on

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

LAS VEGAS — Jacky Rosen, a freshman Democratic congresswoman from Nevada, is jumping into the race next year against Republican Sen. Dean Heller, widely viewed as among the most vulnerable Republican incumbents.

“I think the people in Nevada want to have their voices heard,” Rosen told Yahoo News Thursday. “President Trump and Sen. Heller have not been listening.”

Rosen, a former computer programmer and a newcomer to politics and Washington, will likely be attacked from the right for trying to move up to a Senate seat after only a few months on the job in the House. But the Democrats’ gamble in running a relative political outsider against Heller — the Republican they have the best chance of unseating in 2018 — could pay off in a climate hostile to career politicians.

Rosen also has ties to two powerful Nevada institutions that will boost her chances to boot Heller next year: former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Culinary Workers Union.

Rosen was a member of the Culinary Workers Union as a young cocktail waitress in the 1970s, when she was working at Caesars Palace and other casinos during the summers to help pay her way through college. She remembers waiting around in their offices for the yellow slips that directed her to her shifts. The union’s grassroots energy and organization has helped lead Democratic candidates to victory in the state in the past, and her personal connection may help channel that energy her way.

And Reid, who built the Democratic machine in the state and is still a kingmaker even in retirement, encouraged Rosen to run for her current House seat and then recently asked her to consider upgrading to the Senate.

“He told me to look inside myself and decide if it was the right thing for me to do,” Rosen said.

But even with Reid’s blessing, Rosen may still face a primary challenge from the left, which could divide Democrats ahead of what is sure to be a blistering battle against Heller.

Jacky Rosen, the Democratic candidate for Nevada’s Third Congressional District, speaks to volunteers at a campaign office in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 5 , 2016. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., a happy warrior for the left who’s been in Nevada politics for decades, said in a local TV interview that she believed Rosen is a “nice lady” but that Democrats need someone who has been “seasoned in the ring” for this race.

“I know it will be war, and I know it will be brutal,” Titus said of the race against Heller.

Titus is still making up her mind whether to give up her safe Democratic seat representing Las Vegas and throw her hat into the ring. “It’s a personal and political decision,” she said in a statement to Yahoo News. “The election is 16 months away and I am evaluating in what role I can continue to best serve the citizens of Nevada.”

Asked about Titus’ comments that she was not “seasoned,” Rosen said she had nonpolitical life experience that appeals to voters, including being a computer programmer and later a consultant, raising her family, taking care of her aging parents and in-laws and being president of her synagogue.

“There’s lots of kinds of experiences that people have in life,” Rosen said. “Just because someone’s been in the political arena for a lot of years doesn’t give them the exclusive right to talk about people’s experience.”

Rosen also racked up major endorsements from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., and the pro-abortion rights Emily’s List PAC within hours of announcing, making it tougher for Titus to step into the race. “I need Jacky Rosen with me in the Senate to fight back against Trump’s dangerous agenda and stand up for Nevada’s families,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.

To beat Heller, Rosen must excite and organize Democrats to turn out in an off-cycle election year without provoking Republicans so much that they show up for the unpopular Heller simply to block her. Rosen hasn’t embraced the Democratic “resistance” against Trump as forcefully as Titus — in an interview she said she was a “little bit disappointed” with some of Trump’s Cabinet picks and the way he’s treated people, which some voters might consider not disappointed enough.

A protest against the health care bill in Las Vegas, Nevada, on June 27, 2017. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

In Las Vegas Thursday, two activists huddled under the shade of a small tree in the 110-degree heat outside Heller’s office said they preferred Titus over Rosen. “I want Dina Titus to run against Dean Heller,” said Nancy Nakata, who was holding a sign urging Heller to vote “No” on the Senate GOP effort to repeal Obamacare. “She stands for things I believe in.”

Rory Kuykendall, another activist and a member of the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America, said he had drawn a “line in the sand” on universal health care, which Titus supports and Rosen doesn’t. “We’re not going to accept obstruction from centrist Democrats like Jacky Rosen,” he said. “She’s definitely in the right wing of the Democratic Party.”

Even as far lefties decry Rosen as too centrist, Republicans are readying their campaign to brand her as a “radical” liberal. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign reacted to reports Rosen would run with a scalding statement saying she voted with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in her first few months 92 percent of the time and is “nothing more than a rubber stamp for the radical left.” Rick Gorka, a Republican National Committee spokesman, said the group’s polling suggests 75 percent of Nevadans want Democrats to work with Trump. “From our perspective it’s branding and working to define her statewide that Rosen would go from a clone of Nancy Pelosi to a clone of Elizabeth Warren,” he told Yahoo News.

In an interview, Rosen came across as anything but a partisan warrior, emphasizing that she’s a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, which is made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans who seek to reach agreement on issues like the budget. “We make the joke we’re like Noah’s Ark, you have to join two by two, so you get Republicans and Democrats to stay equal,” she said. She emphasized her work on bipartisan bills that targeted human trafficking and protected Americans’ privacy online.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.; Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.; Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev. and Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. outside a Capitol hearing room. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Rosen, who still has a slight Midwestern accent from her childhood in Chicago, was somewhat muted in her criticism of Trump and Heller in our interview, though she’s hit both more forcefully elsewhere, including in her statement announcing her run where she called Heller Trump’s “enabler.” She criticized Heller for supporting cuts to Medicaid and his earlier support for ending the Medicaid expansion in Nevada. Heller has since come out against a Republican Senate bill that would roll back Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion in the state, though he is being intensely lobbied by GOP groups and Senate leadership to flip that vote and support the bill. (A Trump-affiliated super-PAC even ran ads against Heller in Nevada on the issue before the president, at the request of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, ordered them pulled.)

“Sen. Heller has been in public office around Nevada for nearly 30 years, so he’s been around Nevada, but it’s difficult to point to any legislation that’s passed with his name on it,” Rosen said. “He’s going to have to stand on his record, he’s going to have to shine a spotlight on what he’s been doing and what he stands for.”

Though the first-term congresswoman has lower name recognition in the state than Heller, a Public Policy Polling survey found that Heller and Rosen would be in a dead heat if the election were held today. In that poll, Heller’s approval rating in the state is almost 10 points lower than Trump’s, at just 35 percent. Neither number bodes well for Republicans.

Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative radio talk show host in Nevada, said he believes Nevadans will be turned off by Rosen’s lack of experience. But if Heller doesn’t fix his issues with the Republican base, that might not matter. “They aren’t going to be fooled, but if the whole Republican base stays home for Dean Heller she could win anyway,” Root said.

And some believe the fact that Rosen is a relative newcomer to politics and Washington, which many voters associate with bickering and ineffectiveness, could be an asset.

“Maybe we do need new people, who worked in business, people who aren’t tainted by Washington, to get in there and actually figure out ways to solve problems,” said Laura Martin, the associate director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “I think people like Heller are in Washington for so long it becomes ‘What can I do to stay in office’ instead of ‘What can I do that supports the people in Nevada.’”

Rosen’s fresh face comes with the drawback of being relatively untested as a candidate. In her only election, Rosen eked out a 1 percentage point victory in a competitive district against businessman Danny Tarkanian, who’d already lost five elections before challenging her. The tough race set records for outside spending that cycle. Still, this Senate race against an incumbent will likely attract tens of millions of dollars in outside spending on negative ads — a whole new level of pressure and scrutiny.

“Even though she’s fresh and doesn’t have a record, I don’t know if she’ll be tough enough to beat Heller,” said Chuck Muth, a former GOP party official in Nevada. “I don’t think she’s ever really taken a punch. We don’t know if she has a glass jaw or not.”

Asked about the prospect of an ugly primary, Rosen said she’s just taking the race day by day.

“I’m just going to keep my head down, work hard, try to get my message out, just like I did this last race, and hope that resonates with people,” she said.

Jacky Rosen tours a union training center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 3, 2016. (Photo/John Locher/AP)

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