On the weekend after Nevada Sen. Dean Heller joined 15 fellow Republicans to kill a GOP-led filibuster of gun-control legislation, he returned to his hometown of Carson City and ate with his family at an IHOP restaurant—the same one where a gunman went on a rampage in 2011, killing four people and injuring more than a dozen others before killing himself. In the process, the gunman unloaded a 30-round magazine clip and rocked the sense of safety in the small Nevada community.
Heller’s return to the IHOP before the Senate took up a series of gun-control measures was no coincidence. “He wanted to reflect on the upcoming votes,” a staffer explains.
Those votes would put Heller in the middle of an emotional tug-of-war, as senators from both parties called the Nevada Republican throughout the week, seeking his support. President Obama also reached out to him to personally ask him to vote with Democrats to tighten gun restrictions.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns began running ads in Nevada urging voters to call Heller and demand that he vote yes on legislation in the Senate, while the National Rifle Association warned that it would be keeping score. “The enormity of this issue has weighed heavily on me,” Heller said in a statement.
His approach to the issue also is key to his political future. Nevada’s Republican governor appointed Heller to his seat in 2011 to replace John Ensign, who resigned in disgrace after an affair with his chief of staff’s wife.
When President Obama won Nevada by 6 points in 2012, Heller squeaked by his Democratic challenger by just 12,000 votes. With the Latino vote jumping from 10 percent to 18 percent of the electorate in the past 8 years, the purple state seems to be trending more Democratic every year.
But when the Senate began to take up individual pieces of gun-control legislation earlier this week, Heller joined with nearly all Republicans and several Democrats to vote no—no on an amendment to ban assault weapons, no on a measure to limit magazine capacity, and no on the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks for gun sales.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Heller’s fellow Nevada senator) eventually pulled the bill to staunch the bleeding, or to “take a pause” before the issue became too toxic to revisit. He also warned that Republicans had “damaged their brand” before admitting that he would need more of their votes to get the bill passed.
So what happened? How did the Senate kill a measure that 90 percent of Americans support? And how could a senator like Heller, who seemed so open to compromise on the issue, end up where he has always been, a pro-gun lawmaker with an A rating from the NRA?
On background checks, which Heller has frequently said need to be tightened, he says it was the details of the bill itself that made it impossible for him to support. While the law would prevent the attorney general from keeping records of gun purchases, Heller says it would not prevent other federal agencies from doing the same. “I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens,” he said.
Above and beyond the details of the bills, the politics of guns simply aren’t where Democrats need them to be in individual states and congressional districts to pass meaningful legislation. Yet.
Eric Herzik, the chair of the political-science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Heller’s willingness to simply debate the bill last week likely gave Democrats a false sense of possibility about where he would end up on the issue this time around.
“For Heller, it’s a win. He can say, ‘I’m not one of these crazies who will fold my arms and not talk,’” Herzik says. “But by the same token, he can say, ‘I don't think these provisions are going to work, and they’re a threat to the Second Amendment.’ In an off way, he’s able to have it both ways.”
But Heller, who will not face voters again until 2018, and other Republicans in states with growing Latino populations may not be able to have it both ways for long, as demographic shifts increase the power of traditional Democratic constituencies.
“If you’re looking down the line, the demographics don’t favor the most conservative of Republican candidates and their issues,” Herzik says. “They’re not making old white guys the way they used to.”