Republican Danny Tarkanian said Friday he will drop his primary challenge to Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and instead run again for the southern Nevada House seat he sought unsuccessfully in 2016 after eleventh-hour intervention from President Donald Trump to clear Heller's primary path.
"Late Wednesday, the president and members of his political team reached out to me and asked me to consider supporting the America First agenda as a Congressional candidate by running again in [Nevada's 3rd Congressional District], where I nearly won in 2016 in what was one of the most expensive and closest congressional races in America," Tarkanian said in a statement. "This was not something I ever considered. In my travels throughout the state, I've had so many wonderful people thank me for running for the U.S. Senate."
Tarkanian continued: "I am confident I would have won the U.S. Senate race and done a great job representing the people of Nevada in the Senate, but the president is adamant that a unified Republican ticket in Nevada is the best direction for the America First movement. With President Trump's full support and endorsement, I am filing to run again in [the 3rd District] with the firm belief that we will finish what we started in 2016 and win in 2018."
About a half-hour before Tarkanian's statement, Trump tweeted his plea to Tarkanian: “It would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada, and it’s unity if good guy Danny Tarkanian would run for Congress and Dean Heller, who is doing a really good job, could run for Senate unopposed!"
Tarkanian's switch comes just hours before the Friday filing deadline for the June 12 primary. Heller’s team has hoped to persuade him to run for the GOP nomination for one of Nevada’s congressional seats instead of challenging the senator.
Tarkanian, the son of a legendary University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach, has lost several prior bids for office. He was among the Senate candidates encouraged by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon to run against incumbent Republicans in 2018.
But since Bannon’s ouster from the White House and fallout with the president earlier this year, Trump has increasingly aligned himself with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s picks for Senate, also backing Republican Sen. Roger Wicker over state Sen. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. (McDaniel switched races to avoid a primary earlier this week.)
Heller is considered the most vulnerable Senate Republican running for reelection in 2018, and clearing his path in the primary may aid his chances in the general election. Democrats have lined up Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) to challenge him, and she has raised more money than Heller in each of the last two fundraising quarters.
Tarkanian has repeatedly attacked Heller as a Republican in name only and slammed him for refusing to say before last year’s election if he would vote for the president. More recently, he attacked Heller for saying the special counsel investigation into Russian interference with the election should continue.
“Since the 2016 election, 'DC Dean' has actively attempted to undermine Donald Trump at every turn,” Tarkanian said in a statement last week. “Dean Heller has joined the Democrats, discredited FBI agents, the liberal mainstream media, and the Resist Trump movement in their attacks on the president.”
Heller, for his part, has moved closer to Trump, backing his tax reform law and hardline immigration policies. After opposing the GOP’s first attempts to repeal Obamacare last spring, he eventually co-sponsored the Graham-Cassidy repeal legislation that nearly passed the Senate.
Tarkanian ran for the House seat last cycle, when it was vacated by former Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), who mounted an unsuccessful Senate bid. Tarkanian lost to Rosen in the general election by just over 1 percentage point.
But there are several Republican candidates already running in Nevada's 3rd District. Among the current field, state Sen. Scott Hammond holds a name-ID advantage, while Michelle Mortensen, a former TV news anchor, and Victoria Seaman, a former state assemblywoman who lost a state Senate bid in 2016, hold the most cash on hand in the race.
Elena Schneider contributed to this report.