For the second time this year, the GOP duo of Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei faced a number of difficult questions at a public town hall. Held inside a ballroom at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, the event hit capacity with several hundred squeezed inside for a near two-and-a-half hour question marathon.
Bedecked in the pink knit “pussy hats” that sprung out of January’s Women’s March, many of the liberal attendees wore Planned Parenthood stickers on their shirts and booed loudly at mentions of either Heller’s or Amodei’s conservative bonafides.
Back in February, the pair had a Carson City business lunch turn town hall when angry constituents turned out to grill them — and perhaps boo them too — on what was then only rumors about a Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.
That meeting ended with Heller, who had up until then avoided holding any town halls that weren’t lottery-based telephone town halls, saying that he would only hold an official one if there would be no booing.
“I’ll do a town hall meeting if you if you promise one thing is that you won’t applaud. No applauding alright? And I tell you what, no booing either,” Heller said. “Just no applauding, no booing and we’ll have a one-on-one dialogue. Is that fair?”
But even before then, Heller had his phones swamped by progressive activists energized by the non-traditional, often extreme cabinet picks made by Trump in early February.
While Heller and Amodei had said they wanted to focus on health care and immigration, President Donald J. Trump ended up dominating the early conversation. They were pressed multiple times with questions on the controversial confirmation of EPA chief Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA multiple times during his tenure as Oklahoma attorney general, and the recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Heller drew more boos when he was asked by a former California college professor whether or not the federal government should have a role in environmental policy.
“As a Republican, I would push that down to the states as much I possibly could,” Heller said. “I have more confidence in Gov. Sandoval than I do with anybody in Washington D.C. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility back in Washington, D.C., I just want the majority of the responsibility down at the state level.”
Heller’s equivocal remarks, like those on the environment, often seemed to stir the crowd up more than quiet them down. A chant of “yes or no” was quick to spread at one point, and on the whole, many of Heller’s remarks were followed by some form of audible protest from at least some parts of the crowd.
It wasn’t all jeers and boos though. The crowd applauded statements in favor of increased access to health care, women’s health issues, Planned Parenthood and the environment more generally. There were also at least a few friendly faces, and a late questioner pledged to support the pair in next year’s election.
While both Republicans will be up for reelection in 2018, it’s Heller that will likely sit in the hot seat. Amodei’s district, while it does contain Reno, is largely rural and has never gone for a Democrat in its history.
Heller, on the other hand, will have to contend for the votes of the broader Nevada electorate. That complicates things on two dimensions: first, it means Heller simply has to please more people than Amodei does, and while he will be advantaged by his incumbency, he’s not particularly popular. A January poll from the Mellman group had only 29 percent of respondents viewing Heller positively while 40 percent viewed him negatively. Thirty-one percent said they didn’t know or weren’t sure.
Second, Heller has to deal with the historical disadvantage that comes with midterms that follow a new president. In every midterm but two (which happened during the Civil War and in 2002, following the September 11 attacks), the president’s party has lost seats to the out-party.
A Heller loss would still require a strong Democratic challenger, something that has yet to appear. In any case, it will be months before the senator’s 2018 prospects become clear.
Jacob Solis can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.