If you follow only one campaign in 2016 besides the presidential race, make it the open Nevada Senate race. The battle to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) just became a nationalized battle between Republicans and Democrats.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) officially entered the race Monday after transitioning -- as he put it -- from "heck no" to "heck yes." In changing his mind, he follows now-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) -- another Western Republican House member who changed his mind about running for Senate and, in 2014, won a seat.

Whether Heck will find the same results remains to be seen. He's a battle-tested swing-district Republican going up against the disciplined Harry Reid Democratic machine and Reid's hand-picked successor, former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto. Cortez Masto is vying to become the first Latina to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

The race is a legacy-defining one for Reid and one of Republicans' best pick up opportunities in their bid to keep control of the Senate. Which means if you follow Senate politics at all, you'll be hearing a lot about Catherine Cortez Masto and Joe Heck.

Independent elections analysts the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report rate the race as a pure toss-up.

Following his announcement, The Fix talked with Heck by phone Monday about the campaign. Here is some of our conversation, edited for length.


THE FIX: As recently as Sen. Reid's April retirement, you were a 'no' to run for Senate. You told me that you liked your role in the House -- especially a leadership role in reshaping veterans' benefits. Talk to me about how you went to being a 'yes?'

HECK: We received a lot of phone calls from people across Nevada asking us to reconsider to run for the Senate race as it became increasingly apparent [Gov. Brian Sandoval, Republicans' top choice to challenge Reid or Masto] wasn't going to run.

I spoke with my family about it, kind of feeling them out what they thought. They weren't opposed right off the bat. We then did our researching, talking with folks, trying to address concerns I had and they had, and we ultimately got to the point where we had all the answers we needed, and it was just the matter of whether it was the answer we wanted to hear.

THE FIX: What concerns about the race did you have?

HECK: One, being away from home to run for a statewide race. Two, making sure that I can participate and maintain my military commitment, which is very important to me. [Editor's note: Heck is an Iraq War veteran and brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve. He travels to Atlanta at least one weekend a month for mandatory training missions.] And three, making sure I have the time to continue to take care of the people of [the 3rd congressional district] while running statewide.

Our youngest just graduated high school, so really we'll be empty-nesters, and now it allows my wife to travel with me. And then we made sure we had those commitments from [the National Republican Senatorial Committee], and they were in it to win it. And when we got the commitments, it kind of sealed the deliberation. We moved from a 'heck no' to a 'heck yes.'

THE FIX: After Sandoval decided not to run for the seat, you were Republicans' top choice. How relentlessly were you recruited by the NRSC?

HECK: They did a great job in making sure I felt comfortable that I would have the resources necessary to win; that they were committed to this being their premier race in 2016. They showed me all their number-crunching models, polls they had conducted to say, 'Look, this is winnable if Joe Heck is the candidate.' So they did a hard sell.

But ultimately they actually came out and met with my family, answered any questions they had. Ultimately, when all five of us got together and went around the kitchen table, it was a unanimous vote, and that's what really made the decision.

THE FIX: It's hard to overstate the importance of the Latino vote this election; it could make up 20 percent of the electorate. And your positions on issues Latinos specifically care about, such as immigration, don't easily fit on a bumper sticker. [Editor's note: Heck approves a pathway to citizenship but opposes reforming the system all at once like the 2013 immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. He has proposed his own version of a bill to allow some young undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, but he opposes the president doing so via executive action.] How do you plan to get your message across?

HECK: My position is complex because it is a very complex issue, and those that think you can just pay lip service or come up with some simple solution are wrong. I am very deliberate and very thoughtful in how I approach the issues.

THE FIX: You tend to fall on the moderate spectrum of Republicans. Do you think you have crossover appeal?

HECK: Pundits like to use labels. However, I feel that I defy the labels. You cannot pigeonhole Joe Heck into a specific ideology, because I truly see every individual policy on its own merits. People want that. They want to elect someone who doesn't have a knee-jerk response because that's the way you're supposed to vote. And I think that's why we do so well in CD3, is we're really the bellwether of Nevada.

THE FIX: Nevada is an increasingly important state on the national stage. Will national eyes -- and dollars -- pouring into either side of the race be a help or a distraction?

HECK: I don't know if it would be either. I'll maintain my focus on what I need to do as a congressman and as a candidate for Senate, and what happens beyond that is hard to control. And I've learned that the more you try to control what you can't, the more distracted you become. So I will stay focused on those things within my control, and that's providing the best constituent services in Congress and being the best candidate in the U.S. Senate.