Dean Heller’s harsh critique of the Republican effort to kill Obamacare has broken open a Democratic divide — between those who want to unseat him and those who prefer to lock in his "no" vote first to save the health law.
The Nevada Republican senator gave Democrats a gift on Friday when he issued a stinging analysis of the Senate’ GOP health plan and signaled he may vote against it. His reward: vicious reviews from Democrats who sense a chance to defeat him in 2018.
Heller was "cowardly," not courageous, argued Democratic super PAC American Bridge. He’s "taking marching orders" from party bosses in Washington, said Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. Nevada Democrats assailed his comments as "desperate," and EMILY’s List called him "utterly spineless."
The assault, though, isn’t sitting well with some of the party’s staunchest Obamacare defenders. Heller’s defiance of GOP leadership may help Democrats stave off Republican efforts to gut the seven-year-old health care law this week. Attacking one of the few Republicans likely to break ranks feels disturbingly off-key, some Obamacare backers argued.
"Democrats look awfully disingenuous by attacking him for opposing a terrible plan that would punish his state and constituents," said David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama. "If Dean Heller stops a disaster for his state and people across the country, I’m not going to question his motives."
The tension over how to handle Heller reflects a broader conflict for the party. Democrats in Congress are desperate to stop a GOP health care push they warn will cause devastation for millions of families. But their outside allies tasked with chipping away at GOP control of Washington are solely focused on making vulnerable Republicans pay for the controversial bill.
To liberal advocacy groups focused primarily on preserving Obamacare, Heller’s remarks Friday came as welcome news.
“We do think we need to praise members when they do something right, for whatever reason,” said Angel Padilla, policy director at Indivisible, which has waged a national campaign to thwart Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.
“There are plenty of reasons to try to replace Heller,” Padilla added, “but on this he’s done the right thing.”
Another longtime Obama ally, Jesse Lehrich, called Democratic attacks on Heller "offensive" at a time when "thousands of lives are on the line."
Groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and American Bridge have their focus elsewhere — on the broader political effort to win back the Senate. In that effort, Heller is the most obvious target. He’s the only Republican up for reelection in 2018 who hails from a state won by Hillary Clinton, and he’s Democrats’ best — if not only — shot to flip a GOP-held Senate seat next year.
"Some just are fighting for this one vote, but we’re not just after his vote, we’re also exposing his motivation," said one Democratic operative working to defeat Heller. "We’re just looking at a slightly longer game here. We are going to hold him accountable through this vote and through November 2018."
Democratic strategists note Heller has voted to repeal Obamacare for years.
"Senator Heller has supported the proposals this plan contains and he’s earned a reputation for saying anything that’ll help him out in the moment," said Laura Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Those who know him best think he was protecting himself with his caveats, equivocations and refusal to rule out ending the Medicaid expansion."
Asked about the Democrats’ debate over how to handle his position, Heller smiled broadly but declined to comment.
But Heller knows he’s got a perilous path to reelection. He has already drawn a Democratic challenger, Rep. Jacky Rosen, and his maneuvering on the health care bill may be the defining issue of the race. His public criticism of the Senate GOP bill has already earned him scorn from within his own party, too. Conservatives blasted his critique and a pro-Trump PAC even ran ads linking him to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Democratic operatives note that Republicans offered no quarter to Democrats who bucked their party on Obamacare in 2010. The blue dog coalition of conservative Democrats that attempted to survive the Obamacare backlash that year was largely wiped out, and Republicans didn’t distinguish between those who backed the health care bill and those who didn’t.
"Not one of them was ever given credit for it by one Republican," said a Democratic strategist involved in the current health care fight. "They would say ‘oh bulls–t, they voted for Pelosi for speaker.’"
In that tradition, Democrats say they intend to call out Heller for his lengthy record of advocating for Obamacare repeal before 2017 and for backing the process that has allowed Republicans to advance repeal measures to this point. His concerns now, they argue, are just about self-preservation.
Even those suggesting Democrats should ease up on Heller in the short-term agree he should be watched with a wary eye.
"He may yet yield to enormous pressure from his own party, trade his vote for Yucca Mountain and call it a win," Axelrod said, referencing longtime efforts by Nevada political leaders to block a nuclear waste site in their state.
Indivisible’s Padilla, too, urged Democrats not to let Heller "off the hook" in case he reverses course. And others on the left agreed.
“Until we see and hear the ‘No’ votes from the floor with our own eyes and ears, we are going to keep all out pressure on key Republican senators across all channels,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director at the liberal group CREDO Action, in a statement.
But the party’s most stalwart defenders of Obamacare say if Heller follows through and votes against the GOP health care bill, it doesn’t really matter whether his motives were about political survival or policy. And they believe his opposition will encourage other moderate Republicans to withhold their support.
"We saw a Republican senator saying exactly the same things about Mitch McConnell’s health care bill that Democrats have been saying … That’s a big deal," said one Democratic operative involved in the health care fight, who hopes it could put pressure on other swing GOP votes like West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
“But those senators have less incentive to take that stand if Democratic groups are just going to engage in shameless partisan hackery and slam them anyway," he added.