Leila Navidi / FILE
Monday, Oct. 13, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Dean Heller, when he was secretary of state, forged a reputation for being above the partisan fray and a bit of a populist.
The Republican made a decision that helped Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in his reelection bid against John Ensign. He made unpopular decisions about development at Lake Tahoe as head of the planning board there that cost him support among the heavily Republican moneyed class there. He took on Sen. Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, over campaign finance reform.
So after a bruising Republican primary in 2006, in which he faced a significant challenge from the right, he has become a somewhat surprising darling of conservatives.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who two years ago endorsed one of Heller’s opponents in the Republican primary, conservative former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.
The Club for Growth, a political organization with an anti-tax agenda, two years ago funded Angle’s campaign, painting Heller as a tax-and-spend liberal. But after two years with Heller representing Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, the group has said it is pleased with his work.
The changing perception of Heller has his Democratic challenger, Jill Derby, arguing that Heller has moved to the right and votes too often with his party to be considered an independent voice.
Derby said she frequently hears from constituents that Heller is not the same politician he was in Nevada.
“Something happened when he went to Washington,” she said. “He went not only far to the right, his voting record showed not only a lack of independence, but he was voting against the interests of Nevadans.”
Heller says he hasn’t changed. He has always had conservative beliefs, but 12 years in the secretary of state’s office, overseeing elections, was not the place to flex those partisan muscles, he said.
“I think it’s critically important — I don’t know a more important office — to be nonpartisan than the secretary of state’s office,” Heller said.
Heller defeated Derby two years ago to win his first term in Congress. In a district with 50,000 more Republicans than Democrats, he won by 13,000 votes. This year, the Republican registration advantage has dwindled to 25,000.
Yet polls show Heller consistently ahead of Derby. That may be a reflection of his strengthened conservative credentials. Also unlike two years ago, he did not face a serious primary fight, which he won by only 421 votes, leaving him broke.
When Heller came to Washington, he said he wanted to focus not on the party politics of the capital, but on constituent services back home. The lesson learned from the party’s poor showing nationally in 2006 was that Republicans need to return to their fiscally conservative roots and again become the party of Ronald Reagan, he said.
Heller quickly distinguished himself among the 13 new Republican freshmen on the Hill. Majority Leader John Boehner tapped him to be one of the two freshmen voices in regular party round-table meetings.
He also began to make a name for himself on national issues, calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to unveil a plan to lower gas prices and introducing legislation to mandate English-only ballots.
He also got national attention when he was quoted as saying Republicans needed to clean house in their own ranks, saying those elected in the 1994 Newt Gingrich-led Republican Revolution had lost their way. It was a statement that irked those members, though it came across to some fiscal conservatives as the simple truth.
When arguing that Heller has voted against Nevada’s interests, Derby pointed to his votes against expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, against the ability of Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, and against renewable-energy tax credits.
Derby repeated her claim that Heller voted with his party 92 percent of the time, citing a Washington Post survey.
His campaign disputes that number, saying it unfairly counts procedural votes. They pointed to Congressional Quarterly, a nonpartisan publication, which rated members of Congress by how often they voted with the president. Heller was rated at 75 percent.
The Congressional Quarterly rating for his “party unity” votes was 94 percent.
Heller underscored, in particular, his opposition to the $700 billion financial bailout bill, which House party leaders supported. He said he got calls from senators, the White House, lobbyists.
“I stuck to my guns,” he said.
He cited three reasons for not supporting the bill:
• It didn’t punish those who caused the problem;
• it didn’t do enough to help individual homeowners; and
• it did nothing to prevent this in the future.
“I still believe less government is better,” he said, “but I do believe government has a role.”
In a conservative district, Heller’s burnishing of his conservative credentials likely gives him an edge. What could hurt him is if Derby’s portrayal of him as being too loyal to Republican leadership resonates.
In his defense, Heller has tried to turn the tables on Derby. He has noted her stint as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party during January’s caucus and her endorsement by the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats, to question her independence.
“I didn’t join any clubs. I didn’t join any organizations,” he said. “That’s very Washington.”