(Jon Ward and Andrew Romano) – In September, (Breitbart News chief Steve) Bannon huddled at Breitbart’s Capitol Hill headquarters with Danny Tarkanian, the son of legendary University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and a perennial right-wing Nevada candidate. A month earlier, Tarkanian had announced that he would be challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who denounced Trump during the 2016 campaign and torpedoed an early version of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal legislation.
“[Bannon] told me he supported me 100 percent,” Tarkanian claimed in a BuzzFeed interview. “He said, ‘It was nice to see a candidate that exceeds my expectations.’ So I took that as a very good compliment.”
With Arizona’s Jeff Flake declining to run for reelection and Nevada trending blue — Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump there in 2016 — Heller is by far the most vulnerable Republican senator in the country. So far, he also is the only GOP incumbent fending off credible challengers from both the right and the left — which means the stakes of Bannon’s anti-establishment antics may be higher in Nevada than anywhere else.
And those stakes are likely to remain just as high regardless of whether Bannon himself is a player in the race.
Tarkanian’s strategy is to assault Heller for being insufficiently pro-Trump — and insufficiently principled, especially when it comes to Obamacare.
“When [Heller] has seen a political advantage in attacking Obamacare, he has done so,” Tarkanian wrote in December. “When the tide seems to be running against repeal, he has opposed it and pushed back against calls for repeal.”
Tarkanian’s pitch could resonate in the primary because has a point: Heller has been all-over-the-place on repeal, and his standing in Nevada has suffered as a result. Tarkanian is also correct when he notes that Heller has waffled on Trump, declaring in 2016 that “I vehemently oppose our nominee” but sounding (conveniently) friendlier since the pro-Trump Tarkanian entered the race.
He has a “much closer relationship” now with the president, Heller told the Las Vegas Review Journal last week.
The problem, from McConnell’s perspective, is that however accurate Tarkanian’s attacks may be, his presence in the primary will probably only make it harder for the GOP to retain Heller’s seat. The latest independent polls give Tarkanian the lead; to win, Heller will have to veer further to the right by touting his new chumminess with Trump and his rediscovered distaste for Obamacare. But those are the very things that would weaken Heller against Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, a strong campaigner who has been out-fundraising Heller since announcing her bid in July.
If, on the other hand, Tarkanian prevails, he will face a rematch with Rosen — to whom he has already lost once before, in the 2016 battle for Nevada’s Third Congressional District. . . .
Whatever happens, expect a bitter fight. The lesson Tarkanian took from his loss to Rosen in 2016 is that he didn’t go negative early or often enough. This time, he has promised that “if I go down, it’s gonna go down in a bloody mess.”
As for Bannon, Tarkanian hasn’t bailed on him yet.
“If Mr. Bannon chooses to support me in our effort to repeal and replace Dean Heller with someone who will truly have the president’s back, I welcome his support,” Tarkanian said last week in a statement. . . .
(I)t’s unlikely that Tarkanian’s bond with Bannon will matter much in the primary. Heller is damaged goods among the Nevada GOP base — and Tarkanian will keep hammering him from the right.