The only surprise in Tuesday’s primary elections for Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat might have been that the race wasn't called even sooner.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democrat Jacky Rosen were declared the winners within about an hour of the polls closing, setting the stage for what promises to be a hotly contested race this fall with strong national implications.
The candidates have just under five months to prepare for the general election on Nov. 6 in one of the highest-stakes races in the Democrats’ push to regain a Senate majority for the second half of President Donald Trump’s four-year term.
For Democrats to cut into the Republicans’ advantage, Heller’s seat is considered a must-win.
Of the 35 Senate seats up for election this year, 26 are held by Democrats. The party will need to gain two more seats in November to gain control. The Senate has 51 Republicans, 47 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Heller is the only Republican up for re-election representing a state that Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 general election.
Having won with only 46 percent of the vote in 2012, Heller has been criticized for wavering on the health care issue during last year’s debates and for his hot-and-cold support for Trump.
He stood alongside Gov. Brian Sandoval last year in support of protecting health care coverage in Nevada, saying it would be difficult to get him to vote yes on an Obamacare repeal-and-replace plan that lawmakers were considering at the time.
But months later, he voted in July in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act in a Republican-led initiative that ultimately failed.
David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV, said Heller likely will have to answer for his flip-flops over the next five months as his voting record is more closely scrutinized. Heller must also hope Democrats, who have 62,000 more active registered voters in Nevada than Republicans, don’t flock to the ballot boxes in large numbers.
“It’ll be interesting to see his strategy going forward, whether he tries to distance himself from Trump or pull closer,” Damore said. “He has moved around so much on so many issues, really anything is possible.”
Rosen, a freshman U.S. congresswoman representing Nevada’s 3rd District, announced her Senate bid just six months after taking office. But that might benefit her, as Republicans could struggle to find faults with her limited record, Damore said.
“It’s difficult to come up with attacks when the candidate doesn’t have much of a voting record,” he said.
Data research firm Morning Consult said Heller’s favorability rating was about 37 percent in Nevada, with 40 percent of polled voters disapproving and 23 percent saying they were unsure. The state’s other senator, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, had a favorability rating of 43 percent.
Meanwhile, left-leaning Public Policy Polling in March found 44 percent of Nevada voters would choose Rosen over Heller in a head-to-head matchup, while 39 percent would vote for Heller.
The importance of the Heller race was highlighted earlier this year when Trump put out a tweet March 16 essentially directing then-primary challenger Danny Tarkanian to step aside to avoid a competitive primary.
That followed a Jan. 11 visit to Las Vegas from Vice President Mike Pence encouraging Nevadans to continue supporting Heller.
Rosen, who had never served in a public office until she was elected to the House in 2016, has the backing of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an advantage longtime Nevada historian and political analyst Michael Green said “shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Reid won seven straight federal elections from 1982 until he retired in 2016 and has backed other successful candidates, including Cortez Masto.
On the issues, Heller and Rosen both oppose a recently restarted Department of Energy attempt to fund licensing for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, but their stances on immigration reform are starkly different.
Rosen is a proponent of the DREAM Act and bringing back an extended version of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program. Heller said he supports Trump’s immigration plan, including building a wall across the southern border with Mexico.
Heller also supported Trump’s tax cut bill passed in December, while Rosen denounced it.
Heller touched on those differences in a victory statement issued Tuesday night, arguing his agenda has helped get the U.S. economy on track and arguing that Rosen has spent her time on Capital Hill “seeking a promotion.”
“This election will also be about delivering real results for Nevadans,” he said.
Rosen said in a statement that Heller has “spent the last year letting Nevadans down by breaking his promises to protect our health care, passing a fiscally irresponsible tax bill to benefit his super-wealthy donors, and failing our Dreamers to placate his party’s leaders.”
With $4.9 million and $2.6 million cash on hand, respectively, Heller and Rosen have deep pockets for spending on the upcoming election. And given the importance of the race, both sides should raise big money, potentially leading to more campaign advertising than Nevadans have ever seen in a midterm Senate race.
“Everybody is going to be all over this,” Green said.