A new campaign by top White House allies targeting the GOP’s most vulnerable senator over health care sends a loud message to those resistant to the Trump agenda: We’re coming after you.
America First Policies, a White House-backed outside group led by the president’s top campaign advisers, has launched a $1 million attack against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who on Friday announced that he opposed the Senate’s recently unveiled Obamacare repeal plan.
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That included a Twitter and digital ad campaign targeting the senator, including a video that accuses him of “standing with” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a reviled figure in conservative circles.
“Unacceptable,” the video says. “If you’re opposed to this bill, we’re opposed to you.”
America First Policies is set to expand its campaign early this week with TV ads that will go after the Nevada senator.
The offensive is aimed at both punishing Heller and at swaying his vote, and it is a stunning act of political retaliation against a member of the president’s own party — one who faces a perilous path to re-election in 2018. Senior Republicans, many of whom are deeply worried about Heller’s political standing and increasingly nervous about the midterms, were shocked and spent the weekend measuring the possible fallout.
Those close to the White House say the attack is an outgrowth of President Donald Trump’s mounting frustration over his stymied legislative agenda and anger at Capitol Hill Republicans who he sees as unhelpful.
In a Saturday tweet, Trump hinted at his displeasure after multiple senators expressed concerns with the bill: “I cannot imagine that these very fine Republican Senators would allow the American people to suffer a broken ObamaCare any longer!”
By targeting Heller, America First Policies is telegraphing to recalcitrant Republican lawmakers — even those trying to navigate treacherous political waters at home — that they will be punished if they don’t go along with the Trump agenda. Other Republicans could soon face similar attacks.
Brian Walsh, president of America First Policies, said after Heller’s Friday press conference, the group’s senior leadership — including former Republican National Committee chief of staff Katie Walsh, Trump fundraiser Tommy Hicks, and Nick Ayers, a longtime top strategist for Vice President Mike Pence — determined that “it was time to make a strong statement.”
“For the greater part of a decade the GOP has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, taken dozens of votes to do so, now, with the ability to keep that promise on the horizon, legislators are wavering,” Walsh said. “Sen. Heller’s decision to walk away is unacceptable and sends the wrong message to the rest of the senators who are still working to get to ‘yes.’”
Within 90 minutes of Heller’s announcement, the group had mobilized. Determined not to let the news fade on a summer Friday afternoon, Brad Parscale, the digital director on Trump’s presidential campaign who now works with America First Policies, directed an anti-Heller Twitter offensive aimed at ginning up anger among Trump supporters. Spending just over $100,000, the organization encouraged people to tweet at Heller and his staffers, created algorithms that tied Heller with Pelosi, and promoted a “HellerVotesYes” hashtag.
On Saturday morning, America First Policies itself tweeted: “Why did @SenDeanHeller lie to voters about #RepealAndReplace? He’s now with @NancyPelosi. NOT GOOD! #HellerVotesYes.”
For America First Policies, the move represented something of an about-face. During the House health care debate this spring, White House officials said the group was too passive and should have pressured Republicans who opposed the repeal effort. As Congress entered the summer months, the group promised a more muscular effort to promote the president’s agenda.
The anti-Heller move, however, rankled allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who keeps a close eye on his party’s 2018 plans and is deeply sensitive to attacks on his members. Several McConnell political advisers said they received no warning and vented that it was a serious misstep, especially with the party holding only a two-seat majority.
Heller’s team was also blindsided and infuriated by the barrage, said one adviser to the Nevada senator. But, fearful of further antagonizing the White House, they refrained from hitting back.
“I have a lot of respect for the team running this organization but think attacking fellow Republicans is a big mistake and a bad strategy,” said Brian Walsh, a former top National Republican Senatorial Committee official (who is not related to America First Policies’ Brian Walsh). “There are 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states won by President Trump, including several by double-digits. Money and energy on the Republican side should be focused on turning those seats red and not on a circular firing squad.”
The offensive isn’t entirely without precedent. In 2009, as then-President Barack Obama’s health care push got underway, a White House political arm began airing commercials in the states of vulnerable Democratic senators — some facing re-election — who had voiced concerns about the legislation. The ads annoyed then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who at one point called them a “waste of money.”
Yet the pro-Obama ads, which did not mention the Democratic senators’ names, were not nearly as hostile as the pro-Trump ones, which accused Heller of lying and described his behavior as “unacceptable.”
The animosity between Trump’s allies and Heller is not new. During his 2016 campaign, Trump struggled to win over Capitol Hill Republicans, including the Nevada Republican, who made it known — repeatedly — that he was no fan of the GOP nominee. In June 2016, Heller was quoted as saying he had no intention of voting for Trump. Trump has since made clear to top advisers he doesn’t view the Nevadan as an ally, said two people close to the president.
When the Senate health care debate heated up this week, Heller was once again in the White House cross-hairs. In conversations with the administration, the senator made clear he was leaning against supporting the bill. But Trump advisers thought he was using the bill to play political games — a view that only intensified on Friday afternoon when Heller made his announcement alongside GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, a past Trump critic who also opposes the health care legislation.
“He needs to come back to the table and work to get to ‘yes.’ Period,” said America First Policies’ Walsh. “I think we are making that crystal clear.”