Friday, Oct. 31, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Standing on the royal blue carpet of the U.S. Senate chamber in cowboy boots, Republican Sen. Dean Heller looks every bit the Washington power broker as he swaps jokes and slaps backs with the most influential people in the city.
Across the chamber, in a scene that plays out daily, Nevada's senior Sen. Harry Reid hunches over a desk with fellow Democrats. The Senate majority leader, in a plain gray suit, mutters out the side of his mouth about the vote of the day.
Heller and Reid never make eye contact on the Senate floor. But they could soon be staring each other dead on. Heller, an ambitious yet relatively anonymous Washington lawmaker, is quietly putting together a campaign to make his own name in this town, dethrone Reid and become the state's leader on Capitol Hill.
This fall, Heller worked behind the scenes to raise money for key Republicans seeking to win or hold Senate seats. His goal is to cash in on an unpopular Democratic president and, to a lesser extent, an unpopular Reid, to help his party take over the Senate.
Heller will find out Tuesday if he succeeded. "I told my staff there's a path I want to go down," said Heller, 54. "One of those steps is being in the majority."
Heller's political maneuvering comes after he spent two years on policy work to aid the unemployed, help veterans and reduce federal spending. That work has put Heller on Democrats' shortlist to co-sponsor bipartisan bills.
The real Nevada battle, though, will be born in 2016.
The Silver State will be a swing state in a wide open presidential election, and Reid, 74, is expected to run for his sixth term. With those races on the horizon, Heller is lobbying now to become Senate Republicans' top campaign operative. It would be an extraordinary feat for a rookie senator. If he wins the job, his No. 1 target will be none other than Harry Reid.
"He spent $12 million against me in my last campaign," Heller said in a September interview, referring to Reid's behind-the-scenes meddling in Heller's 2012 Senate race. "And I'll probably return the favor."
The questions for Heller in the next two years: Can the unknown freshman senator climb the ranks of an increasingly conservative Republican party? And can he do it while maintaining a relationship with the still-influential Reid and with Nevadans who are becoming increasingly centrist?
Dean Heller isn't a Nevada native, but he got there as soon as he could.
He was born in 1960 in a Bay Area suburb, and his family moved to Carson City before Heller turned 1.
His parents, Charles and Janet, kept Heller and his five siblings active in the Mormon church. Charles “Blackjack” Heller tinkered with cars and collected trophies in dirt-track stock car races.
Heller grew up as a local star basketball player at Carson City High School. After a Mormon mission in Florida, he transferred from Brigham Young University to study business at the University of Southern California. His affable demeanor and mega-watt smile earned him one of five coveted spots as a USC tour guide. That's where he met his wife of 30 years, Lynne, who also ranked among the school's elite as a USC cheerleader.
The two graduated in 1984, as Reid geared up for his first re-election campaign in Congress. The newlyweds settled in Los Angeles. He worked as a stockbroker, and she taught elementary school.
But politics called them back to Nevada.
Heller thought he'd have a better chance breaking in back home. He took a week off work to shop his resume around Carson City. His connections led to a job as chief deputy to the state treasurer.
He and Lynne moved their toddler daughter, the first of four children, to Carson City. Lynne knew this moment would come. "He was just really set in his life on doing something worthwhile, whatever that may be," she said.
In his hometown, the local boy climbed the political ladder easily. He represented Carson City for two years in the Legislature, bucking his party to support state workers' rights. He continued to work in banking even though his wife's family held millions in California municipal bonds.
Politics and money hadn't changed Heller's down-to-earth nature, his friends say. At 6-foot-3, he had a big presence in morning pick-up basketball games with lawmakers. He skipped fancy lobbyist dinners to hold meetings at a one-seat burger joint that was so greasy he'd warn guests to stuff napkins into their sleeves.
Heller won his first statewide race in 1994 and served as Nevada's secretary of state for a dozen years. Unlike some states, Nevada's chief elections officer is historically a non-partisan role, and Heller was determined to uphold that tradition.
Heller's first real test came in 1998. Republican Rep. John Ensign ran to unseat Reid and fell short by just 401 votes. Ensign, Heller's Republican peer, demanded Heller's office recount the entire state's ballots. Heller did, working to keep politics out of the recount and eventually calling the race for Reid.
"He deserves a medal for bipartisanship," Reid said of Heller at the time.
In his three terms, Heller was so moderate that Democrats asked him to switch parties.
Nevada's political elite began asking out loud when the telegenic secretary of state would jump to higher office. Heller bided his time until a 2006 opening to represent Northern Nevada in Congress.
He faced a tough primary campaign against Tea Party Assemblywoman Sharron Angle and a third candidate. Heller tried to cast off his moderate reputation, but Republicans in conservative Washoe County doubted his pitch. He survived the primary by 421 votes but lost Washoe County.
Some people point to that near-death primary as the moment Heller pivoted to the right.
Others say he moved to the right in Congress to represent a red district.
And Heller's strongest supporters say: "He’s been a maverick his whole career who does not fit into a particular box," said Mac Abrams, Heller's longtime chief of staff.
Heller entered the House of Representatives marginalized. His party was in the minority and he ranked near the bottom of 435 lawmakers.
Even so, Heller immediately set out to make a name for himself. During his second term, he ignored seniority rules and successfully lobbied his Republican colleagues to pick him for a seat on the prestigious Ways and Means Committee, which deals with taxes and federal programs.
He also set out to make friends. After long days in the House, he'd grab burritos with freshman colleague Rep. Kevin McCarthy, an equally charismatic lawmaker who is now the House majority leader. On weekends, they drove in Heller's ancient minivan, its gold paint chipping, to get groceries. (The van was later stolen.)
Building, and keeping relationships, has been one of Heller's trademarks.
As senator, Heller still works out in the House gym to chat with his former colleagues in the lower chamber. "You realize right away you have to spend time and effort developing relationships," Heller said.
It was harder to develop a relationship with Nevada's cantankerous leader on Capitol Hill, Harry Reid.
Like any elected Nevadan, Reid and Heller both oppose Yucca Mountain and collaborated on lands bills.
But the once-moderate secretary of state's politics were at odds with Reid's. Heller championed conservative causes, such as prohibiting immigrants without documentation from receiving government subsidized health care.
With Washoe County's help, Heller won re-election twice. In 2010, Republicans took back the House, and Heller's party was finally in the majority.
Across the Capitol, things weren't going so well for Nevada Republicans. Ensign, now a senator, saw his career crumble in 2010 amid an affair and hush-money scandal. He resigned in 2011.
By then, Heller had been a statewide figure for 16 years, earning him Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval's appointment to finish Ensign's term.
Heller was sworn in as Nevada's junior senator on May 9, 2011, one day before his 51st birthday. At the swearing in, he gave no hint of anxiety about his new role representing the entire state, an electorate less conservative than his old congressional district.
"My philosophy does not change when I come over to the Senate," he told reporters.
Reid's shadow in the Senate chamber
Back in the minority in the Senate chamber, Heller had no time to waste preparing for what was set to be a brutal 2012 campaign.
He was now in the crosshairs of Reid, whose Obama-backed Democratic machine planned to throw everything it had at unseating Heller in a presidential election year.
It was an ugly race between two very different candidates. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Las Vegas Democrat, campaigned against Heller burdened by a House ethics investigation into whether she used her political position to benefit her husband's business.
While Berkley motored through the Nevada Day Parade in a vintage red Camaro, Heller rode his horse.
On Election Day, Heller's stolen gold minivan turned up.
Despite the baggage of Berkley's ethics investigation, Heller won by just 1 percentage point. It was the closest race of his career, but he was also the only Senate Republican candidate to win a state that voted for President Barack Obama. The victory came with another cost: 45,000 frustrated voters chose "none of the these candidates."
Nevada: Big state, small world
Sens. Dean Heller and Harry Reid are new Senate colleagues, but their families have known each other for decades. Heller grew up friends with one of Reid's sons, Leif, in Carson City. And when Reid's only daughter fell ill this week, Heller sent his best wishes.
In politics and in life, Heller said he and Reid respect each other. "We both feel a real high obligation to serve with those who were elected by the people of Nevada," he said in September.
In a statement, Reid's team emphasized the two politicians' "good relationship." Kristen Orthman, Reid's spokeswoman, said: "They are able to work together on behalf of the state."
The race also soured Heller's relationship with Reid.
Heller and Reid never signed a non-aggression pact like the famed Reid-Ensign deal. The two had public spats on judge appointments. Heller also stopped attending the "Welcome to Washington" breakfast, a weekly institution Reid and Ensign held to chat with constituents over coffee and doughnuts. Heller said one-on-one constituent meetings were more helpful.
Heller did find ways to work with Democrats.
When he won re-election, Nevada's unemployment rate was still the nation's highest at 13 percent. Against the advice of Nevada Republicans, he pushed to extend unemployment benefits and became the face of the Democratic cause.
"I don't think anybody believed that I could get enough Republicans to deliver on that," Heller said. "And there were times I questioned it."
He managed to convince five Republicans to help pass the bill in April. The victory earned the little-known lawmaker publicity as a moderate. But Democrats criticized his efforts as political stagecraft because it was well known in Washington that the deal would likely never pass the Republican-controlled House.
"I think even if we weren't successful in getting it done," Heller said, "at least [we were] able to get the American people to realize how important it was."
Branching out on his own
Two years into his six-year term, Heller is carefully balancing moderate views and conservative ideals as he plans for a future as Nevada's senior senator.
His positions aren't always easy to predict. He voted for gender rights in the workplace while opposing equal pay for women.
That makes Heller an unusual lawmaker amid a herd of partisans. It's earned him both admiration and skepticism. "He decides what he thinks is the right thing to do and he just does that," said Mike Slanker, Heller's campaign adviser. "Sometimes that upsets his own party. Sometimes that upsets the other party."
That careful politicking was on display — at least in Democrats' eyes— in an April TV interview with Reid. At the height of the drama over rancher Cliven Bundy's standoff with the federal government, Heller referred to people at the standoff as "patriots." In that same interview, Reid called them "domestic terrorists."
After Bundy wondered out loud to The New York Times if black people were better off as slaves, Heller clarified his comments. "Patriots," he said, referred only to Bundy's supporters, such as Boy Scouts who showed up at the ranch.
Despite that blip, Heller's relationship with Reid is starting to smooth over. They meet once a month and talk on the phone often, mostly to coordinate on Nevada land issues.
"We stay away from things we disagree on, but we certainly talk about the things we do agree on," Heller said.
Heller is also taking steps to get out of Reid's shadow on the national stage. Even though Nevada's junior senator is not up for re-election until 2018, Heller has given an eyebrow-raising $400,000 this fall to help Republicans take the majority from Reid and Democrats on Tuesday.
That's won him attention as a potential leader in 2016 for Senate Republicans' campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Fundraising to try to unseat Reid is fraught with dangers.
Like Heller in 2014, Ensign in 2008 found himself rising among Senate Republicans just two years before Reid was up for re-election. That's when Ensign took over the party's Senate campaign committee and became more partisan.
Heller's ambitions could also be stalled by conservative headwinds such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The 2016 presidential contenders' take-no-prisoners style could undermine Heller's carefully manicured consensus-building credentials.
"In a caucus of bomb-throwers, Heller's relatively non-descript," said Jim Manley, a former Reid aide.
To navigate that, Heller will have to become more visible and rise up the Senate leadership ladder faster than seniority may allow. He will need to find a way to lead on key issues such as immigration.
He's also working to define himself amid an increasingly purple Nevada. In his next election, he has to win over more of Democrat-heavy Clark County while holding onto Northern Nevada.
"There's no doubt whatsoever that the political winds in Nevada are shifting," said Republican strategist Greg Ferraro. "And they're becoming less strident."
It's not an easy balance. Heller spends many Fridays in Clark County before heading north to spend the weekend with his wife on their 185-acre hay farm in Smith Valley, about 50 miles southeast of his childhood home in Carson City.
That has alienated some supporters who feel he spends too much time playing politics. Heller says he's spent eight years in Congress, all but four months in the minority, building bipartisan relationships to get as much done as he can in this broken city.
He got as many bills passed in the House in the minority as his Nevada colleagues in the majority. In the Senate, high-profile Democrats like New Jersey's Corey Booker and New York's Kirsten Gillibrand seek him out to be the lead Republican co-sponsor on legislation.
Eventually, Heller wants to become the senator that other Republicans look up to.
"I want to stand up and everyone says, 'That's the guy we're going to listen to,'" Heller said, his eyes sparkling.