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Rep. Joe Heck walks tightrope when it comes to Tea Party

Congressman Joe Heck

Newly elected congressman, Joe Heck, is photographed outside his offices in Las Vegas Wednesday, November 3, 2010 Launch slideshow »

WASHINGTON — You won’t find Rep. Joe Heck joining picket lines around the Capitol, calling for a government shutdown.

You won’t find his name on letters to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama, demanding reckonings and resignations over their stances on budgets and Medicare.

You won’t always even see him voting Republican.

But when Heck appears before the Tea Party in Nevada, they seem to love him.

“I am behind him 100 percent and everyone I know is behind him,” said Vicki Dooling, a founding member of the Las Vegas Valley Tea Party who also works for the national networking vehicle “I don’t believe he’s left his Tea Party roots at all. He’s a sensible, no-nonsense, common-sense person. And that’s what Tea Partyers are all about.”

It’s high praise that Heck, who’s never taken on the “Tea Party” title, hasn’t had to work for the support as hard as some of his colleagues since he arrived on Capitol Hill, and for the sort of allegiance that most Republicans would kill to have without extra-special exertion. But Democrats warn that appearances can be deceiving: Just because Heck doesn’t proudly bear the Tea Party banner doesn’t mean he isn’t serving its agenda.

Republicans have been locked in a push-and-pull struggle with the Tea Party faction ever since the upstart, ultraconservative movement helped the GOP dominate the 2010 midterms and sweep 87 new Republicans into the House.

The Tea Party takes credit for Heck’s victory. He enjoyed a strong showing of Tea Party support last year, though he never officially dubbed himself a party member.

But since he’s arrived in Washington, he has huddled with, and even swung to the left of, Republican leadership a lot more than he stumps with the freshman revolutionaries sounding their political fifes and drums.

Heck wouldn’t, for example, join the majority of his freshman colleagues — even though he’s one of the three who represents them on the Steering Committee — last month when they wrote to Reid, telling him to move on their fiscal 2011 budget bill or “step aside” — as in resign. Nor would he add his name to a letter cosigned by about half the freshman class last week, calling on President Obama and Democrats to stop peddling “MediSCARE” tactics about the Medicare changes in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget for fiscal 2012.

He’s also broken rank with his party on votes. In March, Heck was the only Republican to vote to preserve the Obama administration’s home mortgage assistance program, even as Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley walked away from it, calling it too flawed to save. He also refused to join the “shut it down” cheers many freshman representatives raised during last month’s last-minute votes to stave off a government shutdown, urging his party to stop grandstanding over policy riders because “the most important thing we need to do is keep the government open — followed by cutting spending.”

He said he took those positions to serve his district, but they didn’t sit so well with the Tea Party at home.

“The consensus is that Joe Heck is doing a fair job as a junior congressman. No politician has a 100 percent approval rating,” Jeri Taylor-Swade, a Tea Partyer starting up a conservative news publication in Nevada. “But as long as Joe continues to vote in a way that a majority of conservatives can agree with, then we will continue his support into the next election.

“We realize that he is representing more people in the Republican Party than the Tea Party-minded people,” she said, adding that Heck’s more moderate votes, so far, haven’t cost him her support. “We would have to wait until he does a big fat negative ... we’re watching Joe and he knows it.”

Heck’s no liberal, and hasn’t gone totally rogue on the GOP. When it comes to the big, national issues, like health care, Medicare, and oil subsidies, he’s in lock step with the party and the Tea Party line.

That’s why the Democrats say he’s cut from the same cloth.

“Just because you’re not out there demanding to see the president’s birth certificate doesn’t mean that you’re not voting the Tea Party’s agenda,” said Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party. “Their agenda is not the agenda the people of the Third Congressional District want.”

Click to enlarge photo

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. speaks during a town hall meeting at Green Valley High School in Henderson Wednesday, February 2, 2011.

Added Gabriela Domenzain, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: “Rep. Joe Heck’s extreme positions to end Medicare and protect subsidies for Big Oil, privatize Social Security and abolish the Department of Education are out of touch with Nevadans.”

Heck’s office’s read of his relationship with the Tea Party is fairly matter-of-fact.

“This is not about the Tea Party vs. Republicans vs. Democrats vs. progressives; it’s not about any one individual,” said Heck’s spokesman Darren Littell, who stressed that communication has been key to Heck’s maintaining a positive working relationship with all his constituents.

“If he takes a vote that he knows the Tea Party isn’t going to like, even if the Tea Party doesn’t like it, he’s still going to take the vote, and then he’ll tell them why,” Littell said. “Joe knows how he votes and why he votes on everything.”

That’s a fairly liberating position for Republicans to be in these days. Tea Partyers have shown they’re a force to reckoned with, especially within the Republican caucus, and many Republicans still worry about answering to a Tea Party constituency when they’re at home.

But if Heck has more freedom than his congressional colleagues, it may just be the luck of his district.

“It really depends on the district and the individual ... he votes his district, and that makes perfect sense,” said Tyler Houlton, Western spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in explaining why Heck’s relationship with the Tea Party might differ from other Republicans nationally. “Their districts are very different, their states are very different, and their Tea Partys are even a little different, too.”

Heck doesn’t have to pander to the Tea Party because he doesn’t have to worry about a serious primary challenger, analysts say, and both Heck and the Tea Party know it.

“Heck was not the darling of the conservatives ... but when he shifted over from running for governor to take on Dina Titus, he became by default the best choice,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at UNR. “Now, it’s like a marriage of convenience.”

“You run a conservative Republican against Joe Heck in the primary, you can give that district to the Democrats,” said David Damore, who teaches political science at UNLV.

Click to enlarge photo

Rep. Joe Heck blows a kiss to his wife in the House gallery after taking his oath on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011.

Heck does have to worry about Democrats, especially those at the center. While the boundaries and demographics of his congressional district for next year aren’t clear yet, he’s likely going to face a mixed field, and last time, even with the power of Republican momentum, he only eked out a victory by 1,748 votes.

“The Tea Party is a significant interest, but there are many significant interests,” Damore said. “And their power is more in who they can hurt rather than who they can help.”

In an ideal world, the Tea Party remains content to stay a relatively silent part of Heck’s base. But before he can count on the terms of that marriage, Heck and the Tea Party’s union will be tested — but likely only by a policy juggernaut so big it commands the Tea Party’s attention.

They’re with him on Ryan’s fiscal 2012 budget and health care. They accepted his votes on the budget for fiscal 2011. So the likeliest test of their staying power is the upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling — a vote that’s already begun to inspire Tea Party ire. Heck said his decision, which he hasn’t announced yet, will be heavily influenced by how much the government is able to reduce spending — but he may ultimately feel he needs to take it to keep the government humming.

At that point, if Heck isn’t willing to bend, Damore said, the Tea Party may break away.

“If the Tea Party leaves him alone, but votes for him, that’s what he needs,” Damore said. “He needs a unified Republican Party, Tea Party and otherwise. If the Tea Party went after him, he’d be dead. Because he wouldn’t have a Republican base.”

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