Republican Danny Tarkanian, a prominent Las Vegas businessman, announced Tuesday he is mounting a primary challenge to Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republicans in 2018.
The bid by Tarkanian, 55, who aligns himself with President Donald Trump, makes good on conservatives’ threats to challenge incumbents they blame for hurting their years-long quest to dismantle the Obama-era health care law.
Tarkanian is a former professional basketball player and the son of former University of Nevada Las Vegas men’s basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. He ran unsuccessfully for several offices in Nevada over the past decade.
“We’re never going to make America great again unless we have senators in office that fully support President Trump and his America-First agenda,” Tarkanian told Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.”
In a statement released earlier Tuesday, he said he was running as “a conservative Republican who supports the policies of President Trump to repeal Obamacare and end illegal immigration.”
The businessman also has aligned himself with Senate conservatives such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, whom Tarkanian described as “fighting for real reforms against the liberals in our party.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm run by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, immediately expressed its support for Heller.
“Time and again, Senator Dean Heller has proven he is unafraid to put Nevadans first,” said NRSC Spokesman Michael McAdams. “The NRSC fully supports Senator Heller in his primary and general elections, and we are confident he will be re-elected.”
Tarkanian most recently ran for the House in 2016, losing to Democrat Jacky Rosen by fewer than 4,000 votes. Rosen is running for the Senate seat held by Heller, who in his second term.
Heller last month opposed two measures — one to replace the 2010 law, the other to repeal and come up with a replacement at a later date. He later backed a final stripped-down bill known as ‘skinny repeal,’ which also failed.
In June, a political advocacy group run by a former White House aide and Trump campaign veterans ran television advertisements in Nevada targeting Heller after he surprised members of his own party with a press conference denouncing the GOP’s Senate health care plan to repeal and replace the Obama health law. Heller had expressed concern about Medicaid cuts in the GOP bill, echoing Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Heller’s team immediately worked to discredit Tarkanian, with campaign spokesman Tommy Ferraro describing him as a “perennial candidate who has spent millions of dollars on five campaigns over the last decade.”
Tarkanian had been weighing a primary against Heller after several better-known Nevada Republicans had declined.
Tarkanian told The Associated Press Tuesday that the White House had played no part in his decision to run. “This was a personal decision based on conversations with the people I’ve communicated with in Nevada,” Tarkanian said in a brief telephone interview.
Democrats have targeted Heller as a rare potential gain for the party in its longshot bid to take back the Senate majority next year. Heller is the only Republican senator up for re-election next year in a state carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election.
But Heller has drawn unwanted attention from Republicans, including President Donald Trump in recent weeks, as Heller has voiced opposition to various versions of the GOP-led Senate’s health care provisions.
Trump offered a veiled threat against Heller, singling him out at a White House meeting with GOP senators two weeks ago. “This was the one we were worried about,” Trump said, motioning to Heller who was seated immediately to the president’s right. “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?”
Heller was among nine Republican senators to vote two weeks ago against McConnell’s bill to replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Heller and six other Republicans later opposed Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s proposal to void the 2010 law with a deadline of two years to enact a replacement.
Heller voted for a “skinny” measure early Thursday, which would have repealed parts of former President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement and carried the issue to a House-Senate conference to negotiate.
The bill failed by two votes in the Senate and with it, for the time being, GOP follow-through on the party’s chief campaign promise for the past seven years.
Tarkanian said Heller’s health care position wasn’t the only reason he was challenging him, though he criticized him for voting to repeal the 2010 law in 2015, but opposing replacement options last week.
“If you vote one way, you should have a good reason for changing your vote,” Tarkanian told the AP in July. “He voted for straight repeal in 2015. Not sure what’s changed that would have him vote differently this time.”
Tarkanian described the final bill, which Heller supported, as “a joke.”
Heller had $3.5 million in his re-election account at the end of June, according to campaign finance records.