Friday, July 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller’s comments to a newspaper nudged him into national headlines recently, sending him careening from impolitic freshman to party oracle in a matter of days.
The reaction has died down, but look for it to resurface this fall in his reelection campaign against Democrat Jill Derby.
The newsmaking began when Heller said the Republican Party needs to “clean house” and “the next couple of election cycles are going to do that.” In remarks to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he said some Republicans who rode a conservative wave to office in 1994 “came to change Washington, and Washington changed them.”
The reaction was swift.
“Class of ’94 Bites Back,” read the headline a few days later in The Washington Post, as one-time Republican revolutionaries stood their ground. Liberal bloggers indulged — “Dean Heller’s foot, meet Dean Heller’s mouth,” a headline in DailyKos said.
Then came a counterreaction from observers who thought Heller was right.
Nevada’s leading conservative pundit, Chuck Muth, posted a blog entry giving Heller a hearty attaboy, writing that if a gaffe means speaking the truth, as a columnist once defined it, “Keep the ‘gaffes’ comin’, Congressman!”
“I thought, Wow, my own congressman gets it — this is great,” Muth said this week. “He was the first one to voice publicly what an awful lot of conservatives around the country are saying privately and publicly.”
Others in Washington also agreed with Heller this week.
The Club for Growth, the conservative organization that tried unsuccessfully to defeat Heller in the brutal 2006 primary election, said “Heller is spot on.” Spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik pointed out that Republicans are losing seats in special elections.
The Club for Growth is pleased with Heller’s performance in Washington, she said. The same is not true for others in the party.
“We’re seeing a lot of housecleaning because people are disenchanted with what Republicans are doing,” Soloveichik said. Republicans no longer can be taken seriously as stewards of fiscal conservatism, and corruption scandals still mar the party name. “They’ve abandoned their principles.”
Even Rep. Tom Cole, the Oklahoma congressman leading the Republican effort to win House seats this fall, said, “We don’t disagree with what he’s saying.”
Cole made news this year with his assessment of the climate for Republicans. “I tell candidates all the time: Run against Washington,” Cole said in an interview Wednesday.
Heller’s comments were consistent with those he made when he was first elected to Congress in 2006. He spoke about the lasting power of the Reagan-era philosophy of small government and fiscal restraint — popular themes in his mostly rural Northern Nevada district. One of just 13 Republicans newly elected in 2006 as voters put Democrats in control of Congress, Heller said his party needed to return to its fiscally conservative roots.
Heller is seeking reelection this fall in a rematch of the 2006 contest against Derby. Conventional wisdom says Democrats missed their best chance at winning the seat two years ago, during the 2006 Democratic wave and before Heller had the power of incumbency. Democrats have never held the seat since it was created in the 1980s. Derby lost by 5 percentage points.
But as polls show Democrats are again the favored party nationally, Derby’s campaign thinks Heller will have to prove he’s not part of the Republican establishment in Washington.
Heller has voted with the Republican Party 92 percent of the time since coming to Washington, the Derby campaign said, questioning his independent status.
“We find it a bit ironic that Dean Heller is calling for the replacement of the party he has voted with 92 percent of the time,” Derby spokesman Dave Mason said.
“Jill Derby agrees there needs to be a housecleaning — Dean Heller is one of those people who need to be swept out.”
After Heller’s comments made the rounds last week, he reached out to those he may have offended.
Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp, Class of ’94 — among those quoted in the Post as biting back — said Heller had approached him on the floor to smooth things over. But there was no need to. “In a way, he’s right,” Wamp said Wednesday. “The status quo has got to go.”