Nevada Congressman Joe Heck has made it official. He is running for Harry Reid’s Senate seat. In the past I have been doubtful of Heck’s chances, partly because he is a white male and will have to compete with a Democratic Latina candidate. But also because of the new, natural blue lean of the state. But at least Heck gives the GOP a chance to be competitive. Until Heck’s announcement (waiting on Sandoval) the GOP had no strong candidates.
Heck is a strong candidate. There should be no doubting that. He defeated an entrenched incumbent in Dina Titus in 2010 in a district the President carried by 12%. In 2012 Heck ran 8% better than Mitt Romney in his redrawn suburban Las Vegas district. He rolled to a 20% victory in 2014. Heck’s ability to outrun his party’s performance in a key swing area of the state is a boon to his party. His name appeal which is high in the Las Vegas area means he also has to spend less cash just introducing himself to voters.
However, his candidacy does come with downsides. For one, he’s a white male running against a Latina candidate in a year where Latinos are expected to make up more than 20% of the electorate. In fact, the track record for recent GOP candidates running for US Senate during Presidential years in the state is not exactly stellar. In 2012, Dean Heller barely defeated a progressive opponent for John Ensign’s open Senate seat. His victory can largely be attributed to his over-performance in Washoe County compared to Romney.
Heck will not have the same benefit. He should run strongly in more rural/suburban Washoe County which is majority white but his strength in urban Las Vegas is questionable. His opponent, Catherine Cortez Masto, should find her strength in urban Clark County but her struggle will be to appeal to the Vegas suburbs. Demographic and political trends have made these areas more Democratic friendly but they are far more Democratic bastions.
Past election trends suggest Nevada has a history of ticket splitting and the state is competitive. Since 2000 the state has had a split Senate delegation. In 2004 George Bush carried the state by 3% but Harry Reid cruised to a 26% victory. As already mentioned above, in 2012 Dean Heller won an open Senate seat while Obama carried the state by 7%. The state’s legislature has often rotated between the parties since the new millennium. The GOP’s best strength in the state has been its consistent hold on the Governor’s mansion. Since 1998, the party has maintained a lock on the state’s top executive office.
The 2014 midterms proved to be a banner year for the GOP. They captured both chambers of the legislature, Governor Sandoval was reelected with 70% of the vote and the party gained a D+4 Congressional district based in urban/suburban Vegas. Even better, the party won every Constitutional, statewide downballot office due to the turnout drop-off Democrats suffered. In fact, some estimates found Democratic turnout dropped almost 40% from 2012.
This is unlikely to happen in 2016 with a Clinton Presidential candidacy and a Latina Senate candidate driving turnout. Thus, Heck must find a way to appeal to the state’s fickle middle and find a way to convince the state’s voters to once again split their tickets. He also will be fighting against history because if he wins it will be the first time in 30 years Harry Reid’s Senate seat would be represented by a Republican.
All in all, the race should be competitive. The one wildcard neither Heck nor Masto can control is the Presidential race. If the GOP nominee or Clinton is clearly cruising in the Presidential contest it will benefit their party’s Senate nominee. It is unclear how well Nevada’s history of ticket splitting will interact with increasing political polarization where fewer voters are splitting their ballots. Heck, hailing from suburban Vegas, should have an advantage in this regard but you never know.