Vulnerable GOP senator heckled at Hispanic event

LAS VEGAS — The most vulnerable Republican senator up for re-election in 2018 faced a handful of protestors at a local chamber of commerce luncheon Friday, where he cast himself as a centrist looking out for Nevada's interests as Republicans in Congress try to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerDems plot recess offensive on ObamaCare Trump got harsher GOP reception than Bush on budget New CBO score triggers backlash MORE (R) addressed a mostly supportive crowd at the Latin Chamber of Commerce, who shouted down about half a dozen protestors critical of the repeal efforts and Heller's vote to confirm EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. But at times, the protestors drowned out Heller's prepared remarks.

“You don't have a spine! You don't stand up for Latino jobs,” one protestor yelled. “He has killed solar jobs! He's killing jobs,” another shouted. “My life is on the line, senator,” said a third. A fourth protestor nearly came to blows with another attendee who tried to escort him from the room.

“More listening, less yelling, how's that? More understanding, less finger-pointing,” Heller said.

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The Nevada Republican said later he did not see the protests as evidence of a groundswell that would swamp his bid for a second full term next year. But he said he had never seen the level of anger that exists in politics today, on both sides of the aisle.

“I think you have a small group of people that are frustrated,” Heller told reporters later.

Heller said he has told Republican leaders in Congress and Vice President Pence that he cannot support the repeal-and-replace measure that passed the House last month. Heller wants more money to provide care for those covered by Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Nevada is one of a handful of states that opted to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid, a decision made by Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), a close Heller ally.

“What I'm trying to make sure is there's not a quarter of a billion dollar hole blown in the budget hear in Nevada,” Heller said. “I'm a long way away from agreeing to what the Senate is doing.”

Heller said he is meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price next week to discuss changes to the bill. 

Heller's reception at the Latin Chamber of Commerce meeting is a hint of the danger he faces in seeking re-election next year. Heller won his first term in 2012, against a scandal-plagued opponent, with just 45.9 percent of the vote. 

That year, he was one of only three Republicans elected statewide in states President Obama carried — the other two were the secretary of state of Washington and the lieutenant governor of Vermont. 

In the years since, Nevada's demographics have only shifted in Democrats' favor. Heller took just 25 percent of the vote among Hispanic voters in 2012, according to exit polls; that year, Hispanics made up 18 percent of the electorate.

But Democrats have yet to find a top-tier challenger in one of their few opportunities to go on offense next year. Former state Treasurer Kate Marshall (D), who lost bids for Congress in 2011 and Secretary of State in 2014, is traveling the state testing the waters for a bid.

After his speech, and after meeting reporters, Heller spent several minutes interacting with the protestors who interrupted him. He pointed to his support for income tax credits for solar jobs, and he debated universal health care with Shaeann Clements, a 23-year old Las Vegas resident who asked Heller to support a single-payer health system.

Heller said he didn't back “socialized medicine,” before thanking the protestors and leaving, surrounded by a protective detail of members of a local laborers' union.