Dean Heller: Ripe for the Picking?
Heller is the only Republican among the 15 U.S. Senators who serve states in which their party holds a minority of U.S. House seats; a dozen (including Heller) are up for reelection in 2018
One of the few bright spots for the Democratic Party on Election Day last November came in the State of Nevada.
Democrats narrowly held the top GOP U.S. Senate target in the race to replace Harry Reid (with Catherine Cortez Masto edging Congressman Joe Heck) and picked up two U.S. House seats by ousting freshman Cresent Hardy in the 4th CD as well as claiming Heck’s open 3rd CD seat. [As well as took control of both state legislative chambers].
Democrats now hold three of Nevada’s four Congressional Districts and, as a result, leave the state’s senior senator – Republican Dean Heller – in a very unique position in the nation’s upper legislative chamber.
A Smart Politics analysis finds there are 15 U.S. Senators who currently serve states with a majority of its U.S. House seats held by the opposing political party; only one of these 15 is a Republican – Dean Heller of Nevada.
Nevada’s only GOP U.S. Representative is four-term Mark Amodei in the 2nd CD. That makes Heller the lone Republican out of the 52 in the U.S. Senate to serve a state in which Democrats hold a majority of its U.S. House delegation seats.
[Note: Maine’s Susan Collins serves a state with a 50/50 partisan split in its U.S. House delegation.]
By contrast, nearly one-third of Democratic U.S. Senators – 14 of 46 – find themselves in Heller’s position:
- Michael Bennet of Colorado (4-3 GOP advantage)
- Bill Nelson of Florida (16-11 GOP)
- Joe Donnelly of Indiana (7-2 GOP)
- Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan (9-5 GOP)
- Claire McCaskill of Missouri (6-2 GOP)
- Jon Tester of Montana (1-0 GOP)
- Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (1-0 GOP)
- Sherrod Brown of Ohio (12-4 GOP)
- Bob Casey of Pennsylvania (13-5 GOP)
- Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia (7-4 GOP)
- Joe Manchin of West Virginia (3-0 GOP)
- Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (5-3 GOP)
Eleven of these Democratic U.S. Senators (all but Bennet, Peters, and Warner) and are up for reelection in 2018, which is part of the reason why Democrats are bracing for a potential bloodbath at the ballot box.
However, simply because several of these officeholders represent states in which Republicans have a moderate to significant advantage in its U.S. House delegation, does not mean they are ‘red states’ per se.
For the last half-decade, Democrats have challenged the fairness of the congressional district lines created in many of these states (e.g. Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; with the courts agreeing in some). If true, that would mean their party is underrepresented in the U.S. House due to gerrymandering artificially strengthening the numbers on the other side of the aisle.
Excluding Tester and Heitkamp (states with a single, at-large U.S. Representative and thus no district lines to gerrymander), the remaining 12 Democratic U.S. Senators listed above represent 10 states with 82 Republican U.S. House members and just 39 Democrats.
In other words, Democrats won just 32 percent of U.S. House seats across these 10 states in 2016 but hold nearly twice the rate of U.S. Senate seats (60 percent, 12 of 20).
However, while losses are expected, the odds may not be quite as bleak as it seems for some of these Democrats to hold their seats.
If their state’s congressional districts have not been gerrymandered, these senators have already demonstrated an ability to win GOP-leaning states, and thus are proven strong candidates (e.g. conservative Democrat Joe Donnelly of Indiana). And if their state’s U.S. House delegation does not reflect its natural partisan lean and has been gerrymandered, then the prospects of another statewide victory by the senator should be less daunting.
And as for Heller?
Just as in 2016, when Republicans had to defend the vast majority of U.S. Senate seats across the country and looked to Nevada as one of its few plausible states for a pickup, Democrats will seek to do the same against Senator Heller in 2018 while they try to hold as many of the party’s 23 seats on the ballot.
The last Republican to sit in Heller’s position was Illinois’ Mark Kirk, who went into the 2016 election with 10 Democrats and seven Republicans representing the state in the U.S. House.
[Kirk had been elected during the 2010 national Republican wave that helped win the GOP 11 of the 19 seats in Illinois. After Democratic-friendly redistricting in the Prairie State, Kirk saw his party shed U.S. House seats and hold less than half of Illinois’ 18 seats after the 2012, 2014, and 2016 cycles].
Senator Kirk was defeated by 15 points in November by Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth and was one of just two GOP U.S. Senators to lose their reelection bids along with Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire (who represented a state with a 50/50 U.S. House delegation).
And while each of 14 Democrats currently serving in the 115th Congress mentioned above were elected in cycles during which the opposing party won a majority of U.S. House seats in their state, only 13 Republicans can lay claim to the same dating all the way back to 2000:
- Jeff Flake of Arizona (2012, 5-4 DEM)
- Chuck Grassley of Iowa (2010, 3-2 DEM)
- Scott Brown of Massachusetts (2010 special; 9-0 DEM)
- Susan Collins of Maine (2002, 2008, 2-0 DEM)
- Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (2002, 2008, 5-4 DEM)
- Dick Lugar of Indiana (2006, 5-4 DEM)
- Olympia Snowe of Maine (2000, 2006; 2-0 DEM)
- Bob Corker of Tennessee (2006, 5-4 DEM)
- John Thune of South Dakota (2004, 1-0 DEM)
- Gordon Smith of Oregon (2002, 4-1 DEM)
- Trent Lott of Mississippi (2000, 3-2 DEM)
- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (2000, 2-0 DEM)
- Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas (2000, 17-13 DEM)
Heller has already announced his 2018 reelection bid but no Democrats have yet to jump into the race.
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1. Really? Not standing for the open governorship? (As the political world is well aware, Heller is not exactly chummy with the current “PEEotus”)
2. Aside from the Greater Vegas-based CD-3 and -4, and its Class 3 seat, the state voted for the D presidential nominee (aka, the nationwide popular vote leader) – though that is (in practical terms) a minor footnote, at least compared to the aforementioned, as well as the takeover of BOTH its Assembly and state Senate.
Despite hints of a GOV run, at the end of 2016 Heller stated (on his campaign’s Facebook account): “I believe serving and running for re-election as Nevada’s senior Senator is where I can do the most good and have the biggest impact for Nevada. Serving as governor would be an enormous honor, but I am looking forward to being Nevada’s strongest voice on Capitol Hill.”