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Election 2018 Profiles: Who is Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV)?

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Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) is Nevada’s senior Senator and is running for reelection against Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen. He’s the only Republican Senator who is up for reelection this fall in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Heller has sometimes been considered a moderate on the issue of immigration, especially when compared to the rabid anti-immigrant haters who have been the Republican Party’s face on the issue in the last few years. And depending on his audience, Heller has encouraged or dissuaded this interpretation. But besides the brief moment in 2013 when Heller voted in favor of immigration reform, he has consistently been on the side of greater restrictions on immigrants, voting down basic and popular reforms. Heller began his Senate career opposing Dreamers, has repeatedly voted against them and other immigrants, and in recent days, has embraced the GOP’s ‘divide and distract’ strategy for 2018.

2018 campaign for Senate

“I have a tendency to support what the president’s trying to do,” Heller told Politico in February 2018, “and that’s probably the position that’s closest to where I am.” During the Republican primary this year, Heller moved away from his “moderate” reputation to embrace the cynical strategy of fear-mongering about immigration in order to divide and distract voters. On his website, Heller supports a ban on safe-city legislation and slams “liberals” who want to “open the border.”   

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with GOP leaders, ran ads attacking Heller’s opponent using the same strategy. Their 30-second ad begins with a claim that “MS-13 violent gang members exploit our immigration loopholes” and concludes that Rosen, the Democratic candidate, puts “Washington politics before our safety.” A similar 15-second ad has the same message and juxtaposes Rosen’s stance on “Kate’s law” with footage of a male actor stalking a young woman while brandishing a knife.

As Viridiana Vida, Nevada State Director at America’s Voice put it:

There’s a reason Republicans have taken this approach. Their candidates, like Dean Heller, can’t run on healthcare because Heller (after flip-flopping) was a key vote to dismantle it. And, he can’t run on the Republican tax cuts because they lined the pockets of their wealthy donors but have done absolutely nothing for the real wages of the average family in Nevada.

(Chuck Rosenberg, the former Acting Administrator of Drug Enforcement Administration warned in USA Today that anti-immigrant rhetoric demonizing communities over issues like MS-13, undermine law enforcement’s ability to address the problem.)

Heller’s record on immigration in the Senate

In 2010, while a member of the House, Heller voted against the Dream Act and continued to maintain his opposition to the legislation throughout his 2012 campaign for Senate. This move was not a surprise as Heller received an A+ rating from NumbersUSA — an organization that is part of white nationalist John Tanton’s anti-immigrant network.  Heller went one step further with his opposition to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which grants birthright citizenship. This undoing of the 14th Amendment is a favorite wish-list item for the GOP’s extreme anti-immigrant wing. As a Congressman, Heller also supported passing an English-only bill — another wish-list item for extremists.

Despite Heller’s opposition to Dreamers and pathways to citizenship for immigrants, Heller tried to win over Spanish-speaking voters during his 2012 Senatorial bid by running a Spanish language ad with his wife, Lynne Heller, who made a direct-to-camera appeal in Spanish. He also had a minimal Spanish version of his website — which omitted his stance on border security and immigration. As of this writing, Heller has not published Spanish language versions of his website or TV ads for his 2018 Senate campaign.  

After the GOP’s drubbing in 2012, the party wrote an autopsy report realizing that they must reach out to Hispanic voters in order to win future elections. As part of this effort in 2013, Republican Senators joined with Democrats to form the “Gang of Eight” and wrote a comprehensive immigration bill. Heller voted for the bill, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for most of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But the legislation failed in the House.

Under Donald Trump, Heller again moved back towards a more anti-immigrant stance. Heller became a co-sponsor of “Kate’s Law”, named for the highly-politicized tragedy of Kate Steinle. Heller also co-sponsored Senator John Cornyn’s “Building America’s Trust Act,” a border-security and immigration-enforcement bill which the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) called “heavy-handed, enforcement-driven bill that is unnecessary, cruel, and expensive. It also includes provisions that may not be legally defensible.”  

Despite his anti-immigrant votes, Heller in August 2017 tried to claim that “no Republican here in the state of Nevada has done more work … to try to move this immigration policy forward,” during a Hispanics in Politics event in Las Vegas. But Dreamers confronted Heller at the event and did not let him embellish the reality of his lackluster support. A few days later in an interview with NBC news, Heller expressed tepid support for DACA, asserting Trump’s right to make changes to the law. He did so after expressing adamant support for Trump’s border wall and calling for its funding.

In September 2017, after Trump tried to end DACA, Heller fell in line with other Republican officials who sought to use the crisis the Administration created to extract new immigration restrictions. Dreamers and immigrant activists sought a “clean Dream Act” — a legislative fix to DACA without anti-immigrant add-ons. Heller opposed that plan, and instead said he was in favor of a bill that would only narrowly address the issue of DACA while providing $25 billion in border security and for the border wall. He also said that E-Verify for businesses, changes to family immigration, and the visa lottery should all should be discussed if a legislative fix for DACA was on the table.

Heller’s lack of support for a Dream Act without terrible anti-immigrant additions contributed to the ongoing limbo state of DACA today. And his equivalence on immigration means that — despite his record for being a moderate — Heller has been nothing but an empty vote for a party which continues to do everything it can to attack immigrants. If Dean Heller makes it back to the Senate in 2019, he will certain not be a champion for much-needed common sense reforms, no matter what he may be leading people to believe.