August 9, 2017 Press Releases

MEMO: Tarkanian shakes up Nevada Senate primary, GOP’s prospects in 2018 increasingly grim

by Nevada Democrats

To: Interested Parties
From: Alana Mounce, Executive Director, Nevada State Democratic Party
Date: Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Subject: Tarkanian shakes up Nevada Senate primary, GOP’s prospects in 2018 increasingly grim

Following the news that Trump-loving conservative businessman Danny Tarkanian is mounting a primary challenge against Republican Senator Dean Heller, it’s worth taking stock of just how problematic this will be for the weak and unpopular incumbent. No matter what the outcome is, Republican prospects for retaining this seat are becoming increasingly grim.

Here’s a look at some of the key factors to consider as the 2018 Senate primary kicks off for Nevada Republicans.


Danny Tarkanian has proven one thing in the course of running for political office: he knows how to win Republican primaries. In four of the five races he’s run, Tarkanian has earned the GOP nomination.

Despite being massively outspent and opposed by the Republican establishment in 2016, Tarkanian beat then-State Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson in the primary for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District. The dark money group Ending Spending pumped a stunning $1.5 million into TV ads in the final weeks attacking Tarkanian and elevating Roberson. Governor Brian Sandoval even cut a direct-to-camera endorsement ad, and it still wasn’t enough to save Roberson. Tarkanian estimates he was outspent by a four to one margin in that primary – and he still pulled off a decisive eight-point win. The same political consulting team that advised Roberson in his losing primary race is also running Heller’s re-election campaign.

In 2012, Tarkanian defeated then-State Senator Barbara Cegavske and other prominent Republicans in a competitive primary for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. Before that, Tarkanian earned the GOP nomination in races for Secretary of State in 2006 and State Senate in 2004.

Tarkanian has consistently embraced far-right positions on core Republican issues like immigration, taxes, Planned Parenthood and Obamacare. He always benefits from high name identification thanks to his previous political campaigns and his father, the legendary former UNLV college basketball coach.


new poll released by The Daily Caller News Foundation and conducted by Republican consulting firm Strategic National finds: “Head to head versus Tarkanian, Heller received 38 percent to Tarkanian’s 34 percent, within the margin of error.” The survey of 500 registered Nevada Republican voters was taken in early August, and it also found Heller’s approval rating underwater with his own party.

Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston believes “Tark could win” and that the primary “will be a war.” Asked this week whether Tarkanian stands a chance of winning, Ralston said yes and pointed out Tarkanian’s numerous advantages: “He has won primaries. He can stay on message. He is all in for Trump. The primary is in June. Turnout will be low. Trump fans will turn out.”


In the 2016 Nevada GOP caucuses, Donald Trump scored a resounding win that put him on the path to becoming his party’s presidential nominee. Trump boosted caucus turnout, earned 46% of the vote, crushed the next closest Republican candidate by 20+ points, and carried virtually every single demographic.

In the 2016 Nevada Senate race, former Congressman Joe Heck faced brutal blowback from voters in his own party after unendorsing Trump and calling on him to drop out of the race. Trump supporters in Nevada vented on talk radio, chastised him at Republican meetings, and many declined to vote for him. That same disenchantment from pro-Trump voters now threatens to derail Senator Heller in 2018.

Tarkanian announced his campaign on Fox News, and he was busy making the rounds on conservative talk radio after his announcement – a reminder that the right-wing is seethingriled up and eager to replace Heller. Prominent local talk radio hosts like Alan StockKevin Wall and Heidi Harris have been bashing Heller for months and were thrilled about Tarkanian’s Senate campaign announcement. In the months to come, Tarkanian will continue to have a friendly platform to get his message out to Republican voters.


Incumbent Senators often ignore primary challengers – but Heller can’t afford to do that. Heller’s campaign immediately lashed out with a stinging response statement. And they’ve been forced to start spending money in the primary, launching competing Google search ads against Tarkanian. The conservative businessman has aggressively attacked Heller for lacking convictions and being the personification of a wavering politician. What’s worse: Heller will be forced further to the right and closer to Trump as he tries to placate base voters who already don’t trust him.

It’s worth noting that the Nevada Republican Party won’t even take sides here. In a stunning interview this week with KLAS in Las Vegas, Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald – a close ally of President Trump’s – made clear that the state party won’t stand up for their incumbent Senator. The White House was also noncommittal when asked who President Trump would support.


Regardless of who emerges from what promises to be a vicious primary, the Republicans have a hard march to November and will enter the general election damaged, drained of resources, and struggling to appeal to swing voters.

Nevada is the only Republican Senate seat up for re-election in a state that Hillary Clinton won. The state is trending blue while President Trump’s approval ratings continue to tank.

Heller’s biggest political nightmares so far this year – on issues like health care repeal and Planned Parenthood funding – have all been self-inflicted, and he begins August recess looking weakdishonest and inept. Tarkanian’s extreme positions and personal baggage have always made him out of touch with Nevada voters.

Nevada’s Senate seat is already ranked as the most likely to flip in either party in 2018, and Tarkanian’s campaign starts out as a potent threat against Heller. As this nasty primary battle gets underway, it will inevitably produce a flawed nominee and further undermine Republican chances of holding on to this seat.

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