- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller has found plenty of reasons this year to break ranks with fellow Republicans — including President Trump.

On everything from President Trump’s budget to the Obamacare repeal to the ultimate parochial issue of the federal government’s plans for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain — the classic parochial issue for a Nevada politician — Mr. Heller has balked at his party leaders’ plans.

He’s also the most vulnerable GOP incumbent heading into 2018, and Democrats are already pouring money into the state, looking to force him into a corner on the hot-button issues like health care.

Mr. Heller is among the Republicans most vociferously questioning the GOP’s health care bill.

“I cannot support a bill that takes insurance away from tens of millions of Americans,” the senator said at a press conference last week with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.

One Democratic strategist said the senator’s opposition to the GOP’s proposed replacement for Obamacare isn’t enough, saying Mr. Heller has to answer for the Republican-authored bill if he seeks a second term next fall.

But Mr. Heller isn’t just getting slammed by Democrats. Conservatives in the state have also expressed their frustration with Mr. Heller.

Back in April, Mr. Heller irked the right with comments at a town hall when he said, “I have no problems with federal funding for Planned Parenthood.”

The next day, Mr. Heller’s spokeswoman Megan Taylor released a statement that read in part, “While he doesn’t have a problem with many of the health care services Planned Parenthood offers to women, he is opposed to providing federal funding to any organization that performs abortions and is supported by taxpayers’ dollars; he has a long record that reflects his position.”

Even before the Planned Parenthood flap, Mr. Heller was fending off complaints from conservatives who said he was too tepid in his support for Mr. Trump. A pro-Trump political action committee even threatened to run ads against him for refusing to sign on to the health bill.

Mr. Heller has defended himself against such attacks at a few rowdy town halls earlier this year, saying he’s a conservative who believes in low taxes and small government.

His biggest fight with the Trump administration is over Yucca Mountain, which has been on the books for years, but had stalled thanks to court cases and the opposition of then-Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevadan who was also Senate Democrats’ leader for more than a decade.

The nuclear waste repository site is located about 90 miles outside of Las Vegas, and the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are trying to restart the project.

State officials have been trying to block it, arguing the state’s tourism would suffer and that the state doesn’t deserve to be take the country’s leftovers.

“Nevada will not serve as our nation’s nuclear waste dump,” Mr. Heller said earlier this month. “The only viable solution to our country’s nuclear waste problem is one that is rooted in consent, and Nevada has said ‘no.’”

Mr. Heller’s firm Yucca opposition polls well in Nevada, and that could serve him as he tries to win re-election in a state that tilts blue at the national political level.

He’s also counting on voters finding him to be a likable guy, someone who holds himself to a standard apart from partisan politics.

“Dean Heller has a personal connection to Nevadans. He’s worked hard to build those relationships over the years. It goes far beyond a 30-second ad or any one policy position,” said Mike Slanker, Mr. Heller’s campaign consultant.

Democrats, though, say Mr. Heller may be leaving himself politically isolated, alienating GOP voters while failing to woo Democrats or moderates.

They said the moderate middle-ground approach failed for former Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican who lost his bid last year to win the Senate seat Mr. Reid was leaving empty.

Mr. Heck waffled on his support for the Trump campaign last year before losing to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Reid protege.

Two Republican strategists pointed to Mr. Heller’s victory in 2012 despite the presence of former President Barack Obama on the ballot, saying Mr. Heller is different than Mr. Heck.

One of the strategists said the only reason Mr. Heller is deemed the most vulnerable GOP incumbent next year is because there are so few Republicans up for re-election.

Democrats are slated to defend 23 seats plus two independents that caucus with them in 2018. Republicans, meanwhile, have eight seats up, and Mr. Heller is the only one sitting in a state won by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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