LAS VEGAS (AP) — President Donald Trump cleared a primary election path for one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans running for re-election this year by persuading U.S. Sen. Dean Heller’s Republican opponent to drop out of the race and instead run for a House seat.
Republican Danny Tarkanian of Las Vegas, who has frequently criticized Heller for failing to be a strong supporter of Trump’s agenda, announced Friday morning that at the president’s request, he decided to leave the Senate race against Heller. Instead, he filed to run Friday for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, an office he unsuccessfully sought in 2016.
“I’ve switched because the president asked me, because he felt it would be the best opportunity to push forth his agenda,” Tarkanian told The Associated Press as he filed campaign paperwork Friday in Las Vegas.
Tarkanian said he hadn’t spoken directly to the president, having missed a call from Trump several days ago. Instead, Tarkanian said he spoke with Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
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“He said the president would like to see me step out of the Senate race, run in a congressional race,” Tarkanian said. “He would like to see unity within the Nevada party, thought it would be in the best interest of getting his agenda passed and was very adamant that I do this.”
Tarkanian’s announcement came shortly after Trump tweeted Friday that, “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!”
In a statement Friday, Heller said he appreciated Trump’s support and kind words and said he is focused on winning his re-election. His statement did not mention Tarkanian.
Heller, the only Republican senator seeking re-election in a state Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election, sharply criticized Trump when he was a presidential candidate and at times kept a careful distance from him as president. Trump publicly scolded him last year but in recent months, their relationship has warmed.
The first-term senator has become an ally to the president by working to get legislation to Trump’s desk, including working to help write the Republican tax overhaul.
Though Tarkanian’s exit from the race creates an easy path for Heller to win his party’s nomination this summer past a handful of lesser-known candidates. In November, he’s expected to face Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen in an election that could help swing control of the Senate.
Rosen mocked Tarkanian’s move as a “backroom deal” made to reward Heller “for caving to the White House’s pressure on health care.”
“This campaign has always been about running to repeal and replace Dean Heller, and we’re going to flip this seat in November,” she said in a statement.
Tarkanian, who has run unsuccessfully for several offices in Nevada over the past decade, is a former professional basketball player and the son of Jerry Tarkanian, former University of Nevada Las Vegas men’s basketball coach.
He will become one the most recognizable candidates in the race for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, a seat Rosen currently holds.
When asked if he would endorse Heller, Tarkanian said, “I haven’t been asked. I haven’t even thought about it.” He added, “I support Sen. Heller completely with his race against Jacky Rosen.”
Price reported from Salt Lake City.