Nevada GOP senator's health care views heat up tough race

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller's sliding positions last year on a long-held GOP promise to repeal Obamacare are providing plenty of fodder for Democrats and activists hoping to stymie his re-election.

Heller, considered the most vulnerable incumbent GOP senator, opposed measures to dismantle former President Barack Obama's health care law before backing other versions that failed. The shifting stances drew attacks from the left and the right, and Democrats are not letting him forget it.

His opponent, first-term U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, has unleashed two health care-related ads in recent weeks that include footage of Heller's uncomfortable appearance at the White House last summer. President Donald Trump — with Heller at his elbow — threatened the senator's re-election over the issue.

"Look," Trump said at the time, "he wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?"

The scene played out only a few weeks after Heller joined with Nevada's moderate Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, to say he could not support legislation that would cut Medicaid, the state-federal program for low-income Americans, or that takes insurance away from tens of millions of Americans.

One of Rosen's campaign ads uses video from both moments, along with video of an inflatable tube man blowing back and forth as a narrator calls Heller "Senator Spineless" and someone who "bends with the political winds."

Democrats and activists have been holding press conferences and recognizing the anniversary of last year's efforts by trying to remind voters of Heller's stances.

Laura Packard, a Las Vegas progressive political consultant and health care activist, said defending the health care law became personal for her when she was diagnosed last year with Hodgkin lymphoma.

She said the law's protections for people with pre-existing conditions and its ban on lifetime limits of what insurers would pay for care are vital for her, and she's been speaking out against Heller.

Heller, the only Republican senator running in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, hasn't made health care a centerpiece of his campaign but has touted the GOP's repeal of the health law's fines for those who don't carry insurance.

"He's clearly made his bed with the Trump fans, and he's decided that's the only way he's going to win his election," said Packard, 42.

Heller campaign spokesman Keith Schipper said in a statement that Democrats "are doing everything they possibly can to confuse the situation, when Dean Heller said he would support expanding Medicaid and he would protect Nevada. All his votes are in line with that."

Despite siding with Sandoval in opposing two GOP repeal efforts, Heller broke with him and backed another measure that didn't touch Medicaid but was still estimated to leave millions without insurance. He then co-sponsored another bill that would have led to Medicaid cuts and would leave "millions" of Americans without coverage, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Most Nevada voters don't know the nuances between the different health care bills anyway, said University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political science professor David Damore.

"That's where the ad can be effective," Damore said. "Showing him saying one thing one day and another the next day."

It's a complicated and prominent issue for Nevada residents, Damore said, even if they are not one of the 400,000 residents who gained coverage through two key parts of the health law — Medicaid expansion and online insurance marketplaces.

Polls show health care is a top issue for voters in Nevada and around the country this year.

Heller has instead emphasized his efforts to improve health care for veterans in the state — a group that's roughly the same size in Nevada as those getting coverage through Obamacare's online marketplaces and Medicaid.

His campaign also is working to define Rosen, who is relatively unknown, to voters before she has the chance.

Rosen "has fixed nothing and done nothing on health care," Schipper said, noting that the freshman congresswoman was in office only six months before announcing she was running for the Senate seat.

"Instead of rolling up her sleeves and getting to work, she toed the party line and voted with Nancy Pelosi 90 percent of the time," Schipper said, referring to the House minority leader. "Her words are pretty hollow when she hasn't accomplished anything in her current job."


This story has been clarified to show that Laura Packard is also a paid political consultant.

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