LAS VEGAS (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican who lost his reelection in 2018, is testing out a potential run for Nevada governor next year, speaking to rural Republicans at two events this month alongside announced candidates.
Heller, who had a complicated relationship with former President Donald Trump, spoke at a June 12 dinner in Elko hosted by the county Republican Party. He made a similar appearance last weekend at a GOP dinner in Churchill County.
The former senator has kept a low profile since losing reelection in 2018 to Democrat Jacky Rosen. Heller had once been a critic of Trump, and the former president publicly scolded him for hindering a GOP health care plan. But they patched up their relationship by the time Heller sought another term, and they campaigned together.
U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei told The Associated Press last month that Heller had told the congressman that he was considering a run for governor, but Heller has not responded to messages seeking comment.
A person close to Heller who was not authorized to speak publicly told The Associated Press that Heller is taking a hard look at whether to run, is very concerned about the possibility of Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak being reelected and wants to ensure the Republican Party has a candidate who can unseat him.
The former senator told the crowd of several hundred people at the Elko GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner that he's exploring whether to run for governor in 2022 and try to unset the incumbent, according to one attendee.
Mandy Simons, a member of the Elko City Council who attended the June 12 Lincoln Day Dinner, said Heller spoke along with the other GOP candidates but Heller told the crowd he hadn’t decided yet whether to run.
“Heller said he’s exploring the possibility of running for governor,” she said.
Lee Hoffman, the chairman of the Elko Republican Party, confirmed the former senator appeared with the candidates for governor but declined to comment further on Heller's remarks or how he was received.
Heller also spoke at a June 19 Lincoln Day Dinner in Fallon, where several announced gubernatorial candidates also spoke. According to Churchill County Republican Party Chair Gary Smith, Heller was invited to speak to the event of about 100 people as a former senator and honored guest.
“He’s a friend of all ours here,” Smith said. “He did not discuss running for governor. He just gave us a nice short talk.”
Lincoln Day Dinners are a staple of local Republican parties across the country, an annual occasion to raise funds for their operations while giving politicians a chance to mix with rank-and-file members.
Heller’s remarks in Elko were brief as candidates were limited to three minutes. Heller recounted to the crowd how past presidents Trump and George W. Bush asked him to accompany them when visiting Elko and northeastern Nevada, dubbing the area “Heller Country.”
Heller sat with his family at a table during the dinner, and his wife, Lynne Heller, sang the national anthem, Simons said.
Heller appeared alongside two other Republicans who have announced they are running for governor: Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Joey Gilbert, a northern Nevada attorney who has questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election.
North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, who recently left the Democratic Party to become a Republican, was invited, but a canceled flight kept him away.