RENO, Nev. — Republicans who hope their Senate disaster in Alabama will scare voters away from other outsider, longshot conservatives should spend some time with Michele Evans.
Three thousand miles from the scene of Republican Roy Moore’s stunning defeat, the Nevada Republican doesn’t see a connection between Moore and her preferred Senate candidate, Danny Tarkanian, who is trying to unseat incumbent Dean Heller after several failed election attempts.
Evans isn’t swayed by the arguments from Republican Party leaders, who warn that conservative candidates with problematic track records like Tarkanian or Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward can’t win general election battles and will lead the GOP to lose seats in 2018.
“We risk losing more with Heller,” said Evans, the 51-year-old vice president of Active Republican Women of Las Vegas.
The clash between GOP leaders and voters who, like Evans, feel betrayed by them will come into sharp relief in a series of Republican primaries in early 2018. The outcomes will help determine Democrats’ prospects for taking back control of the Senate in a year that was supposed to be a disaster for the party. Democrats have to defend 10 seats in states Trump won, but are increasingly hopeful they can do that and flip two GOP-held seats to win the chamber.
Moore’s defeat in ruby-red Alabama has given Democrats some hope of making up ground in typically unfriendly territory. While Moore was an exceptionally bad candidate — he faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenagers as young as 14 when he was in his 30s, made repeated homophobic statements and expressed nostalgia for the era of slavery — other GOP primary challengers have baggage of their own.
Ward, who lost a primary challenge to Sen. John McCain in 2016, has appeared on Infowars, a right-wing radio show that traffics in conspiracy theories and held a hearing about the theory that exhaust trails from jets may be poisoning people, leading opponents to dub her “Chemtrail Kelli.” Chris McDaniel narrowly lost a primary challenge to Mississippi’s Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014 and also has a history of controversial statements on slavery and immigration.
Like Moore, Ward, McDaniel and Tarkanian have the backing of Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House adviser who’s vowed to wage political war against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by backing challengers to some incumbents. McConnell’s allies have sought to send a message that candidates who align with Bannon will pay the price. They’re hoping that sinks in not just with voters, but with donors whom insurgents would need to fund their challenges.
“Steve Bannon is toxic, and we saw that in Alabama,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC supporting McConnell’s candidates. “Candidates that are drawn into Bannon’s universe will now have to answer for Bannon’s baggage, like supporting an accused child molester.”
Andrew Surabian, a senior adviser to the pro-Trump Great America Alliance super PAC and a Bannon ally, noted that Bannon is supporting long-established elected officials in states like Montana and West Virginia. He also doubted the Alabama loss would move Republican voters.
“The only people it carries weight with are people inside the Beltway,” Surabian said.
Indeed, there are signs GOP primary voters aren’t interested in establishment warnings.
Richard Jones, a retired engineer active in Republican politics in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin, prefers Tarkanian to Heller, whom he described as a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only. Referring to Tarkanian’s previous losses, Jones said: “If the only rap is he’s tried and tried and tried, that’s not that negative from my point of view.”
Tarkanian is trying to turn GOP voters’ distrust of Washington, and McConnell in particular, into an asset.
“Mitch McConnell’s argument is we need to support a guy like Dean Heller, who will do what’s politically expedient for himself over what’s best for our country because he has a better chance of being elected than I do,” Tarkanian said in an interview at Mimi’s Cafe in south Reno. “I think that is why people are sick and tired of politicians.”
Nevada Republicans have a history of bucking the establishment — and, arguably, paying the price.
In 2010, the party nominated Sharron Angle, a conservative darling with a series of controversial statements on guns and immigration, to run against then-Majority Leader Harry Reid. Polls found Reid’s approval ratings were low when the race began, but he won.
Heller has shown himself to be a skilled candidate, able to successfully straddle the state’s political divides. He was appointed to his Senate seat in 2011 and was elected narrowly in a year when Barack Obama won Nevada by six percentage points. He’s staked out a softer position on immigration, for example, than other Republicans who lost that year. And voted against the repeal of Obamacare earlier this year.
On Wednesday, he stood prominently behind Trump in the Rose Garden as the party celebrated the passage of the tax overhaul legislation long sought by both conservatives and centrists in the GOP.
Heller’s campaign has already argued that Tarkanian resembles Angle.
“Candidates like Roy Moore, Danny Tarkanian, and Sharron Angle cost us seats and embarrass our party,” Heller spokesman Keith Schipper said.
Erik Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said that regular GOP primary voters may not be swayed by that argument. “It might wake up more mainstream Republicans, more at the level of organizers and donors who say ‘we can’t lose this seat,'” he said.