Getting straight

A rough week for Dean Heller

The Axios website in Virginia portrayed Sen. Dean Heller as the face of the upcoming 2018 election campaign.

The Axios website in Virginia portrayed Sen. Dean Heller as the face of the upcoming 2018 election campaign.

After Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Dean Heller got through his town hall-style meeting with several hundred Nevadans in Reno last week, CNN sought an interview with him, but he declined. The network reported, “His staff said he was short on time, but Heller said it was because ‘we don’t want to step on our message.’”

For days afterward, politicos in the state speculated on whether Heller had succeeded in getting his message to the Nevada public. And his effort to spin things his way was hampered by numerous interest groups trying to spin things against him. They were sending out messages within minutes of the start of the town hall.

Many of them came from sources who had only partial quotes to react to or who are out-of-state. An example:

At a site called Axios, a writer named Jonathan Swan reported he pulled two quotes from Heller’s comments about Planned Parenthood. These were those two quotes:

“I will protect Planned Parenthood.”

“I have no problems with federal funding for Planned Parenthood.”

The writer then sent those quotes to anti-abortion leader Penny Nance in D.C., eliciting a comment. Nance sent this comment:

“I am very disappointed to read this and disappointed doesn’t even begin to cover the reaction our members in Nevada will have when we inform them of Heller’s new position.”

Swan then posted a story containing Nance’s reaction on Axios where Nevada Democratic Party publicist Stewart Boss found it. He sent it out in a message to newsrooms around the state of Nevada.

Had Nance heard or read Heller’s full and nuanced comments, she might have reacted differently—or not.

In the week after the town hall, we received 48 news releases that dealt with Heller and Planned Parenthood alone. That doesn’t count the ones dealing with immigration, other issues, or comment and color from the event. Left and right were unhappy with Heller.

Nevada, which voted for legal abortion in a landslide in 1990, elected Heller as a state legislator, secretary of state, U.S. House member and then U.S. senator.

Over the course of his career, both politics and Nevada have changed a lot.

It was once possible to run for national office in the state and not worry about what national lobby groups like Nance’s Concerned Women of America think.

But as independent political spending has proliferated and the money has gotten bigger and bigger, candidates can no longer necessarily control their home fields.

Here’s a version of Heller’s comments from a mainstream Las Vegas Review-Journal account:

“Heller denied a claim by speakers who said he voted last month to defund Planned Parenthood, a key source of contraceptives for many low-income women. Heller drew loud boos and jeers when he insisted his vote only allows individual states to decide whether to defund the program. He reiterated his belief that federal funds should not be spent on abortions. He also said both he and Amodei opposed the push by Republicans and the Trump administration to repeal the Affordable Care Act before the GOP legislation was pulled without a vote in the House.”

Here’s another, from CNN:

“Heller invoked community health clinics as part of his answer to a question about whether he would protect federal funding for its services through programs like Medicaid. ’At the federal level? Yes, we’ll continue—we’ll continue to look at this issue,’ Heller said, drawing more jeers. ’I will protect Planned Parenthood,’ he said. He then qualified his answer by saying he’d support funding for the organization for specific health care services. Heller said he supports leaving decisions about whether to allow the organization to receive tax dollars to the states. ’When the federal funding does come to the states, … the states [should] have the right to make the determination’ of how it’s used, he said.”

Offending both sides

Once that kind of coverage was out there, interest groups and publications that appeal to particular groups started attacking Heller—though left and right were similarly upset with his posture:

“GOP senator promises to ’protect Planned Parenthood,’ then backtracks.”

“Dean Heller Suddenly Reverses Planned Parenthood Stance.”

The first headline is from Lifesite, an anti-abortion site. The second is from Mother Jones, a leftist, populist site.

There was a time in politics when Heller, trying to navigate a middle approach that had something for both sides, would have had allies among some moderate Democrats to give him some political cover. But since the mid-1990s when Newt Gingrich and his followers set out to polarize the political system, the bipartisanship that once characterized U.S. politics has slowly slipped away. And at the same time polarization was descending on politics, Nevada was becoming more Democratic.

Heller had known how to function in a bipartisan system, as his service as a state legislator and secretary of state showed. But he has had difficulty functioning in D.C. in an age of meanspiritedness and division. But he has to. Moneyed groups like American Crossroads and the Club for Growth can come into states and set the agenda and force Republicans to address their issues. Displeasing them can court a GOP primary, as Heller learned when the Club for Growth sponsored the candidacy of Sharron Angle against his first campaign for the U.S. House. He survived, but it was close and an object lesson.

Since going to D.C., he has been uncommunicative with groups back home, preferring to communicate through telephone conference calls with selected Nevadans more than in American Legion halls and student unions. That reluctance to deal with the public ran head-on into the widepread citizen activism that was generated by Donald Trump’s election in November. There is little sign of it abating any time soon.