Rosen is bracing for Trump to thrash her, though she pointedly said that Heller’s relationship with the president appears “tenuous. The state GOP has closed the gap in party registration from a Democratic advantage of Democrats’ slim hopes of taking back the Senate this fall rest with a former synagogue president serving her first term in Congress taking on a battle-tested Nevada Republican who’s won four statewide elections.
“No pressure there,” said Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) with a chuckle.
Democrats are banking on Rosen to deliver in one of their few shots at picking up a Republican-held seat this fall. The Senate map is stacked in favor of the GOP, and if she can’t beat Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Democrats are almost certainly staring at two more years in the minority.
She’ll have her hands full in Heller, a proven political survivor. In 2012, he was the only battleground-state Republican to survive a strong Democratic year propelled by President Barack Obama’s reelection.
Rosen put herself through college waitressing, including a summer gig at Caesars Palace, and later moved up in the tech world in part by taking on computer programming jobs others didn’t want, like designing an inventory system for airplane mechanics. "Nobody wanted to sit out there on the tarmac for six weeks hearing about how they serviced airplanes," Rosen said.
Rosen popped up on Democrats’ radar after being elected president of her local synagogue – the largest Jewish temple in the state – in 2013. Three years later, she prevailed in a district that President Donald Trump carried by a point. And now Rosen is itching to take on Heller, who has adopted a guarded political strategy of late after stumbling through a brutal legislative fight last fall over the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“I’m going to try to give people someone to vote for instead of something to vote against,” Rosen said in a 35-minute interview in Washington about her difficult task and all the party pressures on her. “I believe I’m going to win this race.”
The race is shaping up as potentially the most high-profile Senate contest of this election year. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) estimated that as much as a quarter-billion dollars could be spent if polls show a tight race in the fall, which would make it the nation’s most expensive Senate race ever.
Rosen is bracing for Trump to thrash her, though she pointedly said that Heller’s relationship with the president appears “tenuous." Trump joked during last year’s health care debate about whether Heller "wants to remain a senator," though the two have grown closer in recent months as Trump helped dispatch Heller’s primary challenger.
Yet given Trump’s low approval ratings in Nevada and Hillary Clinton’s 2-point win there in 2016, the fundamentals of the race seem to favor Rosen. But Republicans say Rosen’s lack of name ID – in Nevada, and in Congress for that matter – is a big disadvantage.
“It’s a her, right?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked about Rosen. “My money’s on Dean Heller.”
The race stands out not only because of a contrast in experience, but also how Rosen is running in a battleground state. Unlike other Democrats in top-tier races who are campaigning as moderates willing to align with Trump on some issues, Rosen is cutting a comparatively liberal profile.
She struggled to name a Cabinet member she approves of in an administration that’s “bent on destruction.” Rosen said she supports Chuck Schumer as Democratic leader and, like Schumer, backed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – though not in the unilateral manner in which Trump did it. (Heller missed an evening of Senate votes to attend the embassy opening.)
Rosen and Heller disagree on issue after issue, other than their opposition to a nuclear waste dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, which has long brought together Nevada pols from both parties. Rosen charges that Heller’s refusal to engage with reporters shows he’s uncomfortable with his support for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, his waffling stance on Planned Parenthood, and his positions on Obamacare and environmental regulations.
“If he were proud of what he was doing, he would be willing to stand up and look reporters in the eye. He’d take an interview,” Rosen said. “That says volumes about his commitment and his pride of ownership in the job he has done and the job he’s doing now.”
Heller said he’d “think about” doing an interview regarding the race, then demurred. Keith Schipper, his campaign spokesman, touted Heller’s work on veterans issues and expanding the child tax credit on the new tax reform law.
“Congresswoman Jacky Rosen’s lone accomplishment is receiving the endorsement of ‘Resistance’ leaders like Tom Steyer and the Democratic establishment at the expense of an actual hardworking congresswoman, Dina Titus.”
Titus, a fourth-term Democratic House member, was indeed polling the race and considering running, but ultimately passed after former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democratic bosses supported Rosen, leaving her an easier path to the Democratic nomination.
Rosen is widely expected to win the Democratic nomination, but first she has to defeat several candidates in a June 12 primary, including past challenger Jesse Sbaih.
Sbaih ran against Rosen for the House seat in 2016 after accusing Reid of telling him to drop out of the race because he’s Muslim. Sbaih, who had about $2 million in the bank at the end of March, is Rosen’s most well-funded Democratic challenger but loaned himself most of that money.
Rosen’s political resume is thin, but she also runs without the years of baggage that a longtime political career can bring. “She’s made for the moment … she’s got this amazing life story, but she’s not going to have much of a learning curve when she gets here,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
A warm personality who dishes out parenting advice and emphasizes that she’s a “regular person,” Rosen isn’t a natural political bomb-thrower.
She is less scripted than Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) was during her race against former Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) in 2016 and has generally avoided hard-hitting attacks on Heller or Trump at this point in the race.
But she said that in the coming months she will hold Heller’s “feet to the fire” as she prepares for a dogfight.
“He has been guilty of breaking promise after promise. And not staying true to, I believe, certainly to who he was in the past. He’s certainly changed and gone down this administration’s path,” Rosen said. “Nevada is purple; we’re going to be going neck-and-neck.”
In an unusual turn, Democratic senators are already predicting Heller’s defeat. The state GOP has closed the gap in party registration from a Democratic advantage of nearly 100,000 to 60,000 in April, according to the secretary of state, though Democrats predict a surge of party registrations as the election nears.
“She’s going to win,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “This is not the year to be running for reelection as a Republican in Nevada.”
If Amodei is correct, the amount of money in the state could be unprecedented. And because the Senate is so narrowly divided and Nevada could tip control to the Democrats, the veteran GOP House member said it’s no surprise that a race in a state with a population of only about 3 million people could be the most watched and priciest in the country.
Rosen significantly outraised Heller in the first quarter of 2018, bringing in $2.6 million compared to Heller’s $1.1 million haul. But he still holds a cash-on-hand advantage, with $4.4 million in his coffers compared to Rosen’s $3.5 million.
Historically, the Senate GOP has enjoyed a money advantage over Democrats due to its close relationships with outside conservative groups. And that could mean tens of millions of dollars spent against Rosen in an effort to define her.
“Rosen, I don’t think, has any nefarious past,” Amodei said. “The good news is she hasn’t got a big political record. The bad news is she doesn’t have a big political record.”
Rosen wasn’t Democrats’ most highly touted recruit in 2016, as a number of other Democrats took a pass on running for the battleground House seat. Yet she became one of the Democrats’ few success stories by winning in a Trump district. And in a year when Democrats are defending 10 seats in Trump country, they’re hoping she can once again outperform the GOP’s expectations of her.
“The minute I found out she was a synagogue president, I knew she could do anything,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), who recruited Rosen for the House seat. “There’s nothing like the politics of a synagogue.”