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Governor Sandoval's New Shadow: Dean Heller

Associated Press

Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller at a news conference where Heller announced he wouldn't vote for the GOP's 'repeal and replace' plan.

Dean Heller has been on the hot seat for months as the debate over a new health insurance bill rages through Congress.

But Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is golden in the eyes of voters. So is it any wonder that Heller has taken opportunities to be seen and photographed at the governor's side?

And now that the Republican health care bill seems in trouble, does that save Heller, who was seen a key vote?

Jon Ralston, publisher and founder of The Nevada Independent, joins State of Nevada to talk politics.

Discussion Highlights

What happened with the break in at Sen. Dean Heller's office?

There was no break in at Heller's office. His office is at a complex on West Sunset [in Las Vegas]. The main building was broken into. Someone left a note on Sen. Heller's door that essentially said, "If you vote to repeal Obamacare, I will die and so will you." That is a threatening letter. The FBI was brought in.

The bottom line is – what seems unreal about this entire thing – is Dean Heller's thorough inability to take a firm position and just stick to it. He has taken the art of being undecided until the last minute or past the last minute to an art form. People are mad at him from both sides. The president is furious with him. The left does not trust him. He's gotten himself into this pickle all by himself.

Isn't this question finished? Sandoval and Heller stood together to oppose the first iteration of this health care bill.

What Sandoval has done, though, has raised serious concerns, especially about the Medicaid cuts. In the first iteration of the Senate bill, Sandoval and Heller called that joint press conference to say that they're against the version of that bill.

But Sandoval is very proud of being the first Republican governor to have expanded Medicaid back in 2012. He brags about the fact that more than 200,000 Nevadans got on health care coverage. Heller didn't say that back then, but now suddenly he's discovered that the amount of uninsured in Nevada has dramatically decreased. We were almost last. Now, we're in the middle of the pack.

He put himself in such a tight box that he'll never be able to support any bill that repeals the Medicaid expansion.

The current bill now is dead because a couple of Republicans said [Monday] night that they would not vote for it. Now, Mitch McConnell said he would bring up a straight repeal of Obamacare. We've already had two Republicans go against that, which means if John McCain, who is gone, doesn't come back they can't get that done.

Think about this problem for Heller – who by the way – was confronted about this in the hallway [Tuesday] morning and what did he say… he's undecided what to do about that. He voted for the same bill in 2015, which would have repealed Obamacare and would have kicked all these people off health care coverage – something he now says he doesn't support.

Does Sandoval have strong convictions on this?

Here's what I know about Brian Sandoval: he has been completely consistant on this. He has a judicial demeanor, he wants to be a judge and that's how he was with expanding Medicaid. When he finally decided to expand Medicaid, he embraced it and he has embraced it more and more as he believes it is working. And he has consistently said he has concerns about any bill that would repeal the Medicaid expansion.

Sandoval truly believes – and I think he has a conviction on this – that it would be wrong to kick people off of health care, even if they're phased out once they have been given health care by the government. That is his sincere belief.

I don't believe that, as long as he holds that position, that Dean Heller, after all the things he's said, could credibly vote for any bill that would kick Nevadans off of health care.

Is Dean Heller going to run for governor?

Way back in 1998, Dean Heller badly wanted to run for governor. He thought he was next in line to run for governor as Secretary of State. And he was essentially forced out of the race when Kenny Guinn, a well-known businessman, was anointed by the powers that be.

He has never given up wanting to be governor. I think his wife would prefer to have him back in Nevada. He wanted to run for governor in 2018 – let's get that out of the way. Anyone who says otherwise is just wrong. He essentially came back and told Adam Laxalt, the Attorney General, that he wanted to run for governor, thinking Laxalt – who has only been in office for his first term – would say, "I understand, Senator." But what Laxalt essentially said – and I wasn't a fly on the wall, but this was the message that was delivered – "Come on in Dean, the water is fine!"

On the Democratic side, Rep. Jacky Rosen (NV-03) is running but what about Rep. Dina Titus (NV-01)?

I think Dina Titus is genuinely upset at being snubbed, which she has been by Harry Reid in the past. And she says, "Listen, Jacky Rosen has been in politics for a cup of coffee. She has been in office for about six months. Why is she being anointed over me against a U.S. Senator who is the most vulnerable senator in the country?"

The reason they [The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] never considered Dina Titus is they believe she can't win a statewide race. She has run statewide before. She ran statewide for governor in 2006. She lost to Jim Gibbons, who was scandal-tarred in that race… the conventional wisdom after that is Dina Titus cannot win… Dina Titus is very smart. She understands political science very, very well… she can also be prickly.



Jon Ralston, founder/publisher, The Nevada Independent

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)