When the president had lunch with GOP senators in July 2017, the Nevada lawmaker sat directly to his right. A month earlier, Heller had joined Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in pledging to oppose a GOP version of Obamacare repeal that would phase out Medicaid expansion. That piece of the 2010 health-care law boosted insurance coverage for low-income people in Nevada.
Trump said he "worried" about Heller's vote and nudged him to support repeal. The president turned to Heller and quipped, "He wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?" Days later, Heller supported a different Republican proposal to roll back large parts of the health-care law, which failed on the Senate floor by only one vote.
Now, Heller's vote is the biggest point of contention in Nevada's deadlocked Senate race this year. The Republican's rival, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, has repeatedly hammered Heller over GOP attempts to dismantle Obamacare. Her message embodies a broader effort by Democrats locked in Senate battles to defend a law that hindered the party in elections only a few years ago.
Trump heads to Las Vegas on Thursday for a rally in part meant to boost Heller's re-election bid. A Trump campaign stop puts Heller in a difficult spot as he tries to win a state Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. The senator will need support from the rural GOP voters loyal to Trump, but the president also risks energizing voters who oppose Obamacare repeal and associate Heller with it.
The president plans to stay overnight in Nevada and attend a fundraiser for a committee benefiting Heller, GOP House candidate Danny Tarkanian, and Republicans' House and Senate campaign arms, according to Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent news outlet.
Rosen has "absolutely" made health care the top issue in her campaign, said David Damore, a professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Damore said Heller's vote last year "hurts him," not only because Democrats can criticize him on policy but also because they can cast him as a "political opportunist" or "waffler."
Democrats across the country have tried to motivate voters by casting a GOP majority as a threat to health-care coverage. The party has seized on the Trump administration's support for a lawsuit that would gut pre-existing conditions coverage — litigation GOP senators have tried to distance themselves from with a proposal to shield those protections. Vice President Mike Pence also gave Democrats more ammunition last month when he said Republicans would continue their efforts to repeal Obamacare next year with a GOP majority.