Nevada Rep. Joe Heck has gone from flat-out no to “at least 50-50” in a potential run for retiring Harry Reid’s Senate seat, but as the run-up to 2016 continues to push national security to the forefront, the GOP has to like the Republican’s odds.
Last month, the congressman sat patiently through the House Armed Services Committee’s 18-hour markup of the annual defense authorization bill as Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, repeatedly redirected questions about benefits reforms to Heck, who leads the military personnel subcommittee. For decades the Pentagon has been warning about ballooning personnel costs, but Congress has blocked efforts to change the system. In just four months as personnel chief, Heck made some headway: many of his recommendations are now part of the House’s version of the NDAA, including a proposal to dramatically change military retirement.
It didn’t hurt that many of the veterans fighting the changes during the markup were addressing a brother-at-arms, of superior rank. Heck is an Army Reservist who has been called to active duty three times over two decades, including a 2008 deployment to Iraq. Late last year, the Senate confirmed him as a brigadier general.
In a recent interview with Defense One, Heck declined to take credit for the hard-won changes, but said, “Certainly, wearing the uniform provides a certain level of familiarity with the issues, and perhaps some more gravitas when speaking about these issues, because I’ve been directly involved with them for 24 years.”
Last month, Heck said he wouldn’t run for Senate next year, citing his military promotion, family obligations, and his current influence as the chairman of two House defense subcommittees. Now he says he’s resolved most of these questions. Those who want him to run, of course, see them not as obstacles, but as the precise reasons he should run.
In 2014, several veterans harnessed anxiety over the Islamic State, combined it with criticism of the Obama administration’s national security strategy, and rode it to Senate victories that helped the GOP take control of the upper chamber. In 2016, Nevada could be key to keeping that control, or even expanding it.
“Veterans have an unparalleled perspective on national security issues and represent a strong voice in the Republican Party,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Matt Connelly told Defense One. “Whether it’s Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois, Senator McCain in Arizona, or any of the veterans running for the Senate as a Republican, we are proud of their service and greatly value the experience they bring to the table.”
He declined to comment on whether the NRSC has been recruiting Heck or other veteran newcomers, saying, “We don’t discuss our recruiting strategy.”
But Heck believes it’s “critically important” to get more veterans to run for public office. He noted that just 101 lawmakers are veterans, an all-time low. “Not that you shouldn’t be elected if you’ve never served,” he said. “But to have folks that actually have lived this fight there to help shape and mold the debate and conversation, I think it’s critically important.”
He rattled off three other HASC servicemembers who have made significant contributions — Reps. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. “I mean, who better knows the sacrifice than someone like Tammy Duckworth?”
Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot, lost both legs and the use of her arm when her Black Hawk was shot down over Iraq in 2003. In March, she announced that she will challenge Kirk, an intelligence officer who retired from the Navy in 2013, for his Senate seat.
Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, declined to comment on whether the Democrats are actively trying to recruit veterans in 2016. “In each state, our recruitment strategy is solely focused on finding the candidate who has the best chance to win their respective state and will work the hardest on behalf of their constituents once they get to the Senate.”
But Heck predicted that foreign policy is going to have a much bigger impact in the 2016 elections than it did in the 2014 midterms. Although the Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 10 and are at an increasing disadvantage in the general election given Democrats’ dominance of the minority vote, the GOP is continuing to use the slow progress in the Islamic State fight to argue that Obama and the Democrats don’t have a national security strategy.
“With the rapid expansion of ISIS from a JV team into the most formidable terrorist force in the Middle East and across the world, and far from having al Qaeda on the run, they’re being emboldened,” he said. “It’s forcing everyone to become more engaged on foreign policy, and not just focused on the Middle East — we’re still having debates over Iran, a resurgent Russia.”
Heck said foreign policy and military issues are “really high on my list” and have played prominently in his decision on the Nevada Senate race.
But the confluence of crises also makes every national security issue that comes up in Congress an added battle to show who’s stronger on defense. Heck has been in the trenches with HASC’s markup of the defense authorization bill. The White House and Democrats have threatened to block the bill due to Republicans’ mechanism to boost defense spending: using Pentagon war funds, Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, to go around the budget caps.
“Nobody wants to use OCO,” Heck said, but for Obama to threaten a veto, “He’s really putting the troops at risk. He’s like the bully on the playground saying, ‘I’m gonna take my ball and go home if we don’t play my way.’ … You need to fund defense to the levels necessary, period. End of story.”
The GOP has also seized this week on the Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi, where American troops saw heavy fighting during the Iraq War. The Pentagon and administration acknowledged it as a setback, but emphasized the long game.
Heck is immersed in strategy. A member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he chairs its subcommittee on Defense Department intelligence. He also holds a masters in strategic studies from the Army War College and has lectured on medical support for special operations and terrorism response.
“Yes, there’s an ebb and flow in any war,” he said. “The good guys win, the bad guys win, it’s about who has more wins than losses on the battlefield by the time it’s over. But if you look at what’s happened over the last year, ISIS has had more tactical wins than the good guys. Therefore I believe that is a referendum on the strategy, or lack thereof.”
“At the very least,” he said, “we need to have embedded advisors and targeters out there” in Iraq and Syria. As for President Obama’s refusal to put combat boots on the ground, Heck noted that didn’t preclude him from recently sending special operations troops into Syria. “We’ve already crossed that line,” he said.
“Of course, there’s always the concern about mission creep,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to relive Vietnam because the generals keep saying, ‘We need more troops.’”
One of Heck’s primary concerns about running for Senate in 2016 is whether a freshman Senator can command as much sway on these issues as a three-term congressman with plum committee assignments. Still, Republican Sens. Joni Ernst, Iowa; Tom Cotton, Ark., and Dan Sullivan, Alaska, were selected for the Armed Services Committee directly after their elections. “I would certainly hope so, if I make that decision to run for the Senate, that would be one of the potential outcomes” — prime Armed Services and Intelligence spots, he said.
But first he’d have to win. Heck would likely face Democratic candidate Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. The DSCC quickly backed her after she announced in early April. If elected, she’d be the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Such a matchup would be a collision of the demographic trends long expected to doom the GOP’s long-term viability, and the security crises that have unexpectedly led to a Republican resurgence on defense, at least in the short-term.
Nevada is 27.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent Census data. It has nearly 227,000 veterans. But Heck’s swing district is unique even in his swing state, and he’s won it three times — starting as part of the 2010 GOP wave. Clark County, in which his entire district sits, is 30 percent Latino and growing. Clark, whose population of more than 2 million represents most of Nevada’s total of 2.8 million, has just over 150,000 veterans. Obama won the district by eight-tenths of a percentage point in 2012, but only a handful of Republicans represent districts that are more Democratic than Heck’s. This suggests he could appeal to a statewide electorate. He is also a rare Republican who has expressed openness to immigration reforms, though he’s tried to thread the needle; in one of the biggest battles of the NDAA, he voted against allowing so-called “DREAMers” to join the military.
As Heck emphasized that national security is important to Nevada voters, he said he hasn’t forgotten his constituents’ priorities, invoking the tradition of the retiring Reid.
“If you look at what I’ve been able to do over four years, five months in the House, all of those things have an impact on Nevada,” he said, noting jobs and the economy remain the top issues. “It’s not only my military experience … I know what it’s like to sign the front of the check, not just the back of the check. It’s the real-world experience I’ve had giving hard working families a voice to try and make ends meet.”
Sound like a stump speech? Heck said he has no specific timeline for his decision.
“We’re doing our due diligence,” he said. “It’s been flattering and humbling to have so many folks from Nevada say, ‘you should look at this race’ — that’s actually how I got into Congress … I had not thought about it until I received that phone call.”
“We’re still considering,” he said. “It’s at least 50-50,” he said. Emphasis on the “at least.”