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The Senate's Most Vulnerable Republican Can't Win On Obamacare

Both Democrats and Republicans have it out for Nevada Sen. Dean Heller — regardless of how he ends up voting on the Republican health care bill.

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Two weeks ago, when Sen. Dean Heller announced he couldn’t back the Republican health care bill in its then-current form, Republicans and Democrats alike started writing his political obituary.

A super PAC aligned with President Donald Trump announced a seven-figure ad buy targeting the senator for bucking the president — a second offense in that column, since Heller never backed Trump for president in the first place. A Republican challenger emerged whom Nevada Republicans could not discount in a primary. Democrats, who hope to oust Heller next year, salivated: If he voted against the bill, it seemed, Republicans would do much of their work for them. If he voted for it, they would pillory him.

Now, the super PAC ads are gone, but Heller’s political dilemma hasn’t cleared up. Still, when Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen officially announced her bid for Senate, she stepped delicately on the subject of Heller’s future vote on the health care bill. That’s because how the Nevada senator will ultimately vote on the bill is anyone’s guess. (Heller’s campaign team declined to comment for this story — his official staff did not respond to multiple emails and declined to provide information about the events the senator held during recess week.) And so Democrats and Republicans eying a challenge to Heller have a challenge of their own: How do you run against someone when you have no idea how he’ll vote on the bill, and when there’s an even chance he could vote the same way that you would?

“There’s no political sweet spot in health care,” Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei told BuzzFeed News last week.

But some critics contend Heller is trying to find one, that trapped between two sides that are completely at odds, he is trying to please everyone.

Sitting in a nondescript conference room in the Nevada Democratic Party headquarters Thursday, Rosen downplayed the significance of the possibly impending vote that has consumed political speculation for weeks.

“Whatever this one vote is, it’s really part of— he’s a whole person with a whole long history on the public record of what he stands for, and we’re going to continue to talk about those policies going forward,” Rosen told BuzzFeed News.

Rosen had made her campaign official that morning, and in this brief respite from cameras on a media tour, she sat with her jacket on the back of a chair, a water bottle in front of her. It was 112 degrees outside, the kind of heat that takes some time to shake even with air conditioning blasting at arctic levels. The type of heat, Rosen joked, was how she kept track of where she was when traveling constantly back and forth across the country — “it’s humid there and a blow dryer here.”

Democrats have made no secret that they plan to excoriate Republicans for their support for the various Republican health care bills to repeal and replace Obamacare. Already, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been running digital ads attacking Heller for his expressed desire to get to a place where he could vote yes on the bill.

But Rosen insisted on a wider focus.

“Over and over again, [Heller’s] voted for worse bills to repeal or to sabotage health care. And so right now, he’s in the spotlight. So what’s he doing? Because he’s worried about his next election. So what I say to that is let’s look at his record, let’s look at what he talked about, and let’s look at what happens when he’s not in the spotlight,” she said in the interview.

But two weeks after Heller announced that he could not support the health care bill as currently written, while standing side-by-side with Nevada’s popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, Republicans and Democrats alike remain uncertain how the senator will vote on the bill — and what the bill will ultimately look like, for that matter.

There’s some hypocrisy here on the Democratic side. Democrats don’t want the health care bill to pass and undo their efforts under the Obama administration, and Heller could help steer the bill toward failure. But Democrats also want to beat Heller next year — so he’s unlikely to get any points if he does vote against it.

Critics point to a series of conflicting, and often confusing, statements the senator has made over the last couple months on a variety of topics. In April, he said he had “no problems with federal funding for Planned Parenthood.” His spokesperson later clarified that in fact he did have problems with federal funding for any entity that provides abortions. Also in April, Politico published audio of Heller telling a group of conservatives that he would “do everything I can to get to a yes” on a health care bill. But at the end of last month, he announced that the Senate bill as currently written was not the answer.

“He’s very wishy-washy and he tries to have it both ways,” said Annette Magnus, president of Battle Born Nevada, a progressive group.

“Heller’s voting history has always been confusing,” said Zachary Moyle, a former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party. “I don’t think anyone can really predict where he’s going to be on any given vote.”

That “whole long history on the public record” is something Rosen lacks. She was elected to political office for the first time in November, and the 2016 campaign was her first foray into electoral politics. It’s something that both Democrats and Republicans think could boost her in a race against Heller, who has a nearly 30-year-long career for Democrats to pick through and attack. Republican Danny Tarkanian, her opponent in her 2016 race, calls Rosen's lack of political experience “her greatest strength.”

“Her best deal is people don’t know who she is, and she doesn’t have a record one way or the other, and I think that’ll put Dean in a tough spot,” he said.

In a moment where voters are frustrated with Washington and its political denizens — as evidenced by Trump’s election in November — Rosen’s background could prove a boon.

Asked if she thought her short record was politically helpful, Rosen demurred. “I haven’t really thought about it,” she said. But, she added, “There’s more experience to life to just being in elected office.”

Others are more forthcoming about what they see as an advantage. “Democrats are looking for new leadership. Jacky is someone who totally fits that mold — this is her second career, she’s not someone who is a lifetime politician,” said a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid, who by Rosen’s account encouraged her to run both for the House and now for Senate.

When Rosen officially announced her bid, Heller’s campaign responded by attacking Reid, a bogeyman for Republicans when he was still the Democratic leader in the Senate. It’s unclear how potent that attack is now that he has retired from public office — if not from the behind-the-scenes machinations.

Even with her short record in Congress, Republicans hope they can attack Rosen over her vote last week against a bill to crack down on sanctuary cities. “They’re trying to legislate in fits and starts instead of looking at a comprehensive plan,” Rosen said of her vote.

For Heller, the health care vote could well prove to be as much of an issue on his right as it is on the left. Heller’s position on the Senate’s initial bill again put him at odds with Trump, who has expressed his support for the bill.

This time, Trump’s orbit proved unwilling to let Heller slide. America First Policies, a super PAC aligned with Trump, threatened a seven-figure ad buy against the senator, though they later backed off after Heller met with Trump at the White House. The senator, as one Nevada Republican consultant put it, “already has a problem with the base in Nevada.” Heller leans into the fact that he sometimes bucks his party, but it doesn’t mean it endears him to his base.

“It’s not something he runs from,” said Moyle. “But not running from one thing and confusing your party’s base is another.”

He could well wind up having to spend money battling a primary challenger before he even gets to Rosen. Tarkanian, a perennial candidate in Nevada, is looking at challenging him. But he, like Rosen, said his choice would be about more than just the health care decisions.

“Nothing’s gonna change by one vote, in my opinion,” Tarkanian told BuzzFeed News.

Alexis Levinson is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Alexis Levinson at alexis.levinson@buzzfeed.com.

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