BOULDER CITY, Nev. — Long before Donald Trump was a candidate for president, Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) was the Republican whom immigration reformers could do business with. He read the entire 2013 reform bill. He met with undocumented immigrants, sometimes praying with them.
This year, Heck wants Trump to be president. Unlike most other Republicans, he doesn’t even squirm at the question.
“He’s a lot of talk,” said Astrid Silva, a daughter of Mexican immigrants and an activist for immigration reform who recalled how Heck had turned against her cause a while back when he called police about protesters marching outside his office here. “He makes me think of the movie ‘Clueless’ — he’s such a Monet. He’s so well put together. He looks like this perfect candidate. But when you look really closely, you see the flaws.”
If there was any state where Trump would hurt the chances of down-ballot congressional candidates, Nevada was supposed to be it. President Obama carried it twice, both times losing the white vote but winning landslides with the state’s enormous Latino population.
Despite sentiments such as Silva’s, however, Nevada is the only competitive Senate race in the nation where Democrats are playing defense. Heck, a physician and a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, is on a prized mission for the GOP: seizing the seat of retiring Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid. Money and support are flowing in. And Heck’s own advocacy for immigration reform — even though he now supports Trump — has bought him some goodwill among nonwhites.
In 2012, 71 percent of Latinos backed the president — before Trump, before thousands of Latino immigrants became citizens just to oppose him. Democrats still hope that Catherine Cortez Masto, the former state attorney general running against Heck who would be the first Latina senator of any party, could surpass that. She might also benefit from presidential-year turnout, which tends to favor Democrats in Nevada.
Yet polling paints a portrait of a close race. A poll conducted last month by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR) found Nevada’s presidential race tied between Trump and Hillary Clinton, while Heck was up by 5 points against Cortez Masto. A Monmouth University poll released last week found Clinton up by four points — and Heck up by two.
“We’ve always run ahead of the top of the ticket,” Heck said in an interview before this city’s Independence Day parade. “We ran eight points ahead of President Obama in our district in 2012. So we don’t worry about what’s going on above us.”
One of Heck’s salvations may be that Nevada has become a contest of resentments. Republican polling, which has mirrored the GQR findings, has found Clinton to be no more popular than Trump in Nevada, in line with Reid. Heck is running ahead of the ticket in his Clark County district, where even Democrats concede that the strength of his constituent services has built relationships with the Latino and Asian voters expected to reject Trump.
Then there is the question of whether Trump will harm down-ballot candidates anywhere. In new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls released Friday, Republican Senate candidates in Florida and North Carolina are running ahead of or are statistically even with their opponents — and ahead of Trump, who trails Clinton in those states, according to the same polls.
Narrowly elected to the House as part of the 2010 tea party wave, Heck has frustrated Democrats by adroitly managing his brand. As a state senator and candidate for governor, he refused to sign the Americans for Tax Reform pledge; as a House candidate, he signed it. In 2010, he appeared at a tea party rally with Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, now a Trump endorser who amplifies his panic about Mexican immigration; in 2013, Heck was one of few House Republicans who favored immigration reform — then opposed the measures that came before the House.
As a result, Asian business owners recall the days that Heck visited and put in a shift; Latino voters hear Spanish-language ads on Pandora describing how Heck really does want immigration reform.
“Heck has also shown the ability to reach out to the Hispanic communities in his district,” said Ian Prior, a spokesman for the conservative Senate Leadership Fund, which has reserved $6 million in TV ad time for September and October. “We recognize that Reid machine as formidable, but we don’t think that will be enough to get a mediocre candidate in Cortez Masto past an excellent candidate in Joe Heck.”
In an interview, Heck said that he is in favor of an unspecified reform plan and would advocate for it even in a Trump presidency.
“It’s hard to predict what the future’s going to hold, but that’s the position I’d take on the Senate side,” he said. “Being a smaller body, it might be easier to build a critical mass of consensus than trying to do it in a group of 435.”
That message has strengthened Heck’s prospects in Clark County, home to Las Vegas and 78 percent of Nevadans. When Democrats win the state, as Reid did in 2010, they typically score a Clark County landslide — and not too many voters throw up their hands and choose “none of the above” over the available candidates. (In 2010, 2.3 percent of voters in the Senate race did so.)
Nevada Democrats, with no illusions about the challenge, have prepared by registering voters. As of Monday, they enjoyed a lead of 120,031 voters in Clark County, and even a narrow lead of 5,204 in Heck’s congressional district. Trump, they say, was an asset, inspiring Latino immigrants to earn citizenship just so they could register to vote. In an interview at the party’s Clark County headquarters, Cortez Masto described Heck as a model Trump ally whom her campaign could expose.
“He’s got a record that’s not supportive of comprehensive immigration reform,” she said. “He’s voted to tear families apart and is against equal pay for equal work for women.”
But as they have come to see Nevada as a must-win state, Republicans have thrown more at Cortez Masto than Democrats have thrown back. The Democrat was Nevada’s attorney general during the 2008 economic crisis, presiding over settlements with banks. Republicans have resurrected her old disappointment with one settlement to say that she didn’t do enough. Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch network-funded super PAC, beat every candidate to the airwaves with a spot accusing Cortez Masto of assisting “her friends in Washington” because partners at a law firm hired to work on a foreclosure settlement donated money to her campaign.
That ad, which understated the gains from the foreclosure settlement, was a classic example of attacking a candidate for a possible strength. Heck is having more success talking about what he wants to do in Congress than Cortez Masto is with what she actually did in Carson City.
He is also having an easier time tying Cortez Masto to Reid than Cortez Masto is portraying Heck as a Trump clone. Two weeks ago, both candidates marched in Boulder City’s Independence Day parade; Heck’s truck stayed behind the main Republican float with its Trump signs.
“I took off my Trump button before the parade,” confessed Lois Choate, 69, a Republican activist clad hat to heels in patriotic gear.
One aspect of Heck’s message is that he is independent-minded — and that Reid “became too partisan” in office and is trying to install his successor. Asked whether Trump is a racist, Heck immediately turned the question back to Reid.
“I think he has said things that are inappropriate,” Heck said. “I wouldn’t cast him as a racist for the comments that he’s made. I’d say: Is Senator Reid a racist when he called a candidate in CD3 [Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District] unelectable because he was a Muslim? Or when he was at the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce and said, ‘You guys aren’t as smart as everybody thinks you are, but you’ve got us convinced you are,’ and then at the end saying: ‘My problem tonight is that I couldn’t keep my Wongs straight’?”
Asked about Clinton and Reid, Cortez Masto doesn’t distance herself from either, but she doesn’t pretend they’re popular. Clinton, she says, is “talking head and shoulders above the Republicans about the issues people care about.” Reid, who endorsed her as a successor even before she declared her candidacy, is not dictating how she’ll run.
“Senator Reid is going to leave an incredible legacy for the state of Nevada, and I’m honored to have his support,” she said. “But I’m honored to have the support of so many people across the state. And Harry Reid’s not on the ballot.”
Back at the parade, Heck walked and waved, offering a bright “Good morning!” or “Happy Fourth!” Three opposition research trackers pointed their cameras at him, coming away with clips of him saying “Happy Fourth!” or people bolting off a curb to thank him — for getting a building renamed for a veteran, for helping a spouse get citizenship.
The trackers’ next few weeks didn’t look any easier. Heck would skip the Republican convention for the same reason he did not attend Nevada’s nominating caucuses, which Trump won by a landslide: Army Reserve duty.
Cortez Masto would be skipping the Democratic convention, too, all the better to keep “talking to voters in rural Nevada.”