Former Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is preparing to run for governor in 2022, giving Republicans a high-profile entrant into one of the key contests of the midterm elections.
Heller has meetings with GOP governors, party leaders and major donors at the Republican Governors Association conference this week in Nashville, Tenn., according to three people familiar with the conversations.
It would represent a dramatic comeback for Heller, who lost reelection in 2018 as part of a nationwide repudiation of former President Donald Trump. Heller, who spent more than two decades in state and federal office, has begun talking with potential consultants and has conducted an initial round of polling.
Republicans are looking to knock off first-term Gov. Steve Sisolak, who is the first Democrat to hold Nevada’s governor’s mansion since 1999. One survey conducted earlier this year found Sisolak with a 48 percent approval rating, narrowly ahead of his 43 percent disapproval rating but still close enough to make him one of the top targets for the GOP in next year’s elections.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a past Republican National Committee and RGA chair, met with Heller for around half an hour at this week’s conference and came away with the impression that Heller was “very serious” about running.
“I think he’s really committed to this campaign,” said Barbour. “He would be awfully hard to beat in a primary.”
The Associated Press previously reported that Heller told Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), another potential candidate, that he was considering a gubernatorial run.
The 61-year-old Heller would face a primary fight against several Republicans including Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a former Democrat who recently switched parties.
Heller’s hot-and-cold relationship with Trump would likely become an issue in the campaign, particularly in a Republican primary where rivals could accuse him of being insufficiently supportive of the former president. Heller was critical of Trump throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and after the October 2016 release of a tape in which Trump was heard speaking in sexually graphic terms about women, the senator was quoted as saying he was “100 percent against [Democratic nominee Hillary] Clinton, 99 percent against Trump.”
The tension bled over into the opening months of the Trump administration, when Heller — who was preparing to run for reelection the following year — opposed a Trump-backed Obamacare repeal bill. A Trump-allied political organization then retaliated by launching an advertising campaign savaging the senator.
But there was a thaw after the then-president convinced an ally, Nevada Republican Danny Tarkanian, to seek a House seat rather than wage a primary challenge against Heller. Heller spent the much of the remainder of the 2018 campaign embracing Trump — at one point calling him a “great leader” — and the former president traveled to Nevada to stump for him ahead of the election.
The two then collided again after Heller lost to Democrat Jacky Rosen by 5 points. Trump told reporters that Heller’s defeat came about because Heller had been “extraordinarily hostile” to him during the 2016 campaign and had alienated his supporters. The senator fired back by saying that Trump had called him right before the election and predicted to him that he’d win.
“Now all of a sudden he has a different spin on that. Not surprising. I think America’s used to that,” Heller said at the time.
But those close to Heller argue that he would enter the primary in a strong position, given that he would be facing a splintered field of far less established opponents. And they contend Heller’s past criticisms of Trump could help him in a prospective general election in a Democratic-leaning state, which President Joe Biden won by just over 2 points in 2020.