Joe Heck, the Republican candidate for Senate in Nevada, withdrew his support of Donald Trump last month. Many Republicans say the move reeks of what is wrong with Washington.
LAS VEGAS — A proud Republican, Mojgan Rahbanoff doesn’t hesitate to display her allegiances.
On the front lawn of her luxurious Las Vegas home, the Paris-raised designer has put up a signboard for a slew of GOP candidates: one for her husband, Norm Ross, a political newcomer running for assemblyman in their district; another for Danny Tarkanian, a local business owner running for Congress; and of course, one for Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Conspicuously absent is a sign for Joe Heck, the Republican congressman and physician seeking to take over retiring Democrat Harry Reid’s seat in the United States Senate.
Representative Heck, who is running against Democratic state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, is the GOP face of a key contest in the partisan battle to control the Senate. A Heck victory would mean two Republicans representing Nevada for the first time since Senator Reid first won his seat in 1986 – a strategic step forward for the GOP.
And yet: “I took it out,” Ms. Rahbanoff says of her Heck signboard. “I didn’t vote for him. I’m extremely, extremely, extremely disappointed” in him.
Her anger stems from Heck’s decision in mid-October to publicly pull his support for Mr. Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” video that features the GOP presidential nominee flippantly discussing sexual assault.
To some Nevada Republicans, Heck’s decision was, at best, done in poor taste. To Rahbanoff, it smacked of betrayal – and ultimately represented the kind of establishment politicking that helped spur nationwide support for Trump’s unorthodox candidacy in the first place.
Indeed, interviews of conservative voters here – including those who do not necessarily fit the popularized profile of a Trump supporter – revealed to varying degrees a current of frustration with party leadership that runs beyond Trump’s white working class, populist base. In discussing Heck’s renunciation of Trump, educated, middle class, traditional Republicans articulated a need to close the growing gulf between elected officials in Washington and their constituents on the ground.
What emerged is a portrait of not only a party facing a crisis of identity, but also a voter base troubled by the future of its leadership – whatever the results of the presidential race.
“Republicans are well aware that Trump didn’t get to where he is as a candidate today by himself. He didn’t buy his way into being nominated. He has been supported by many, many Republicans voting in those primaries,” says Jan Leighley, a political scientist at American University in Washington who specializes in voter turnout and behavior.
“And so I think the serious people at the top of the Republican party have to ask: How did we get so out of touch with our voters that the people who talk our talk and play our game and have had these histories of commitment and connections and experience … were so easily thrown out?” she says.
“They have to get back in touch with who their voters are.”
The insurgent: The GOP doesn’t ‘have a clue’
Mr. Ross has been a devoted Republican all his life. In the home he shares with Rahbanoff, he displays at least three framed photos of him standing with presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. And as an executive for a hotel and resort chain, Ross in many ways embodies the moderate, business-friendly coalition that has long dominated Republican philosophy in Nevada.
Yet his firm support for Trump, disdain for Heck, and last-minute decision to run for assemblyman in his district speaks to a frustration with party leadership today. When he talks about politicians, he uses the language of the antiestablishment, populist movement.
“All of our officials lose courage once they’re elected,” Ross says. “They do whatever it takes to stay in office,” even if that means kowtowing to Democrats.
“The disconnect is on their part,” he adds. “They don’t have a clue.”
Ross’s position shows that the lines dividing the GOP – laid out by the establishment politicians like Heck who have withdrawn their support for Trump – run through the party’s base as well, political analysts say.
“It’s a pragmatism versus purity argument,” says David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The base thinks that the politicians should be pure, that they’ve sold themselves out. ‘Negotiate’ and ‘compromise’ are bad words, right? That sort of rhetoric carries a lot of clout.”
The pragmatist: ‘We need that seat’
Lori Piotrowski tries to look at the bigger picture. As president of the Nevada Federation of Republican Women, she says it’s her duty to support the party’s goals – one of which is to retain the Senate majority. So although she’s not especially pleased with Heck’s decision – “He could’ve just been quiet about it,” she says – Ms. Piotrowski voted for him anyway.
“I am not as happy doing it as I was before,” she says. “But personal feelings set aside, we need that seat in the Senate.”
Still, Piotrowski, an author and adjunct lecturer at the College of Southern Nevada, recognizes the struggle the party faces. And although she is no member of the disenfranchised working class, Piotrowski says she is nonetheless disappointed with the unfulfilled promises of some of the leaders she helped she elect into office.
“A lot of people are very upset with what they see in Washington as our elected officials going against what the people wanted,” she says.
“We had control of the Congress, and we fully expected some things to happen. And they didn’t. When we got the Senate, we fully expected some things to happen, and they didn’t,” she adds. “And so then that begs the question: Why are you there?”
The Heck loyalist: values matter
The Thursday before Election Day, Richard Carreon worked the phones with other volunteers at Heck campaign headquarters in Las Vegas. Though a registered independent, Mr. Carreon, a military veteran, identifies with many of the Republican party’s values – at least as Heck represents them.
To Carreon – who will not be voting for Trump – Heck’s decision to distance himself from the nominee was the best move in a bad situation.
“Joe Heck is still an Army Reserve officer,” he says. “Not making a public statement against Trump would have been contradictory to Army values.”
Cynthia Zeidner, sitting one table over, says she will vote for both men. Like Piotrowski, Ms. Zeidner had mixed feelings about Heck’s announcement. Ultimately, however, she says she will stand by her party – though she’s only been registered since 2008. Perhaps alone of those interviewed, Zeidner is optimistic about the future of the GOP.
“I still feel it’s my party,” she says as she affixed postage stamps to the backs of thank-you notes the campaign sends to donors.
By and large, however, Republican voters – especially those who work closely with the party at a local level – expressed a desire for more effort from leadership to reach out to their base.
“I would like to see the party refocus,” Piotrowski says. “It’s ignored its voters for way too long.”
“The establishment cannot go, ‘We know better than you.’ I have a PhD; I know exactly what I want,” Rahbanoff adds. “Even if Trump wins, the GOP will not be the same. It will definitely have to change.”