Dean Heller, a Republican senator from Nevada, is nervous about 2018.
And for good reason—Nevadans not only went for Hillary Clinton this past November, but they also elected a Democrat to the Senate, flipped two Republican seats in the House, and retook both legislative houses in the state legislature.
The victory of Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto over her Republican challenger, Joe Heck, was hardly guaranteed; polls showed Heck in the lead for much of the fall, but polling released in December suggested his opposition to Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights ultimately damaged his electoral prospects. The pollsters also found that 47 percent of Nevadans would be less likely to re-elect Heller in 2018 if he voted to defund Planned Parenthood.
Raquel Cruz-Juarez, a Planned Parenthood organizer in Las Vegas, says lots of people have been reaching out to volunteer for the organization, especially following the Women’s March.
“It’s been incredible to see the energy from supporters across the state of Nevada,” she says. “18,000 Nevadans depend on Planned Parenthood for health care, so we can’t sit on the sidelines.”
Beginning with action forums and organizer trainings in January, reproductive rights advocates—working with in conjunction with other progressive organizations—began pressuring Dean Heller for an opportunity to meet.
“We want a town hall, not a lousy robo-call!” activists shouted outside the Carson City Chamber of Commerce in February.
On February 24, about 200 activists gathered at the Clark County Library for a town hall, though Heller was a no-show. Heller’s spokesman told local news affiliates that the activists never seriously informed the senator about the town hall, and were just trying to discredit him, but activists had video evidence of their original invitation.
One constituent, Shannon, did manage to approach Heller at a private luncheon in Carson City to talk about Planned Parenthood—and filmed the exchange. Heller said that while he “doesn’t have a problem” with the organization, “he thinks [Planned Parenthood] should stand on its own”—citing a Nevadan who recently made a $1 million donation to the group. Planned Parenthood receives federal reimbursements for providing preventative services to Medicaid patients, and for providing family planning services under Title X—the type of costs that could never be fully supplanted by philanthropy. When Shannon went on to ask Heller why he opposes federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the senator wrongly insisted that the organization uses federal dollars to pay for abortions—something that has been banned for more than 40 years.
Planned Parenthood supporters’ activism has only continued to grow in recent months. The group says its activists have made more than 10,000 calls to Heller’s office since the Women’s March. On April 17, when Heller appeared before the Nevada State Legislature to deliver an address, reproductive rights activists staged a “pink out” outside the state capitol building, rallying under the banner of #HarmfulHeller.
Earlier that day, Heller held a joint town hall with Republican Congressman Mark Amodei. When constituents pressed them on whether they would support Planned Parenthood, Heller’s initial vague responses were met by loud boos. Following this, a woman asked Heller if he knew that Las Vegas has led the nation in outbreaks of syphilis for the past three years, and some of those contracting the disease live in retirement homes and assisted living facilities. “As a former Planned Parenthood patient, I want to ask you for a clear, and direct answer this morning because I still don’t know where you stand on funding,” she said. “Will you stand with Planned Parenthood and protect their funding?”
Heller responded that he would support federal funding for Planned Parenthood to help eradicate syphilis. “I do believe Planned Parenthood does good things, and I will continue to federally fund those activities,” he said.
Heller’s comments were met with standing applause. Planned Parenthood immediately issued a press release stating that Heller pledged to protect funding for the organization.
Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate, and can lose no more than two votes on any issue. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine has previously voted against efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in January that she would not vote for a health care bill that included a provision to defund the organization. If Collins, Murkowski, and Heller all voted against defunding Planned Parenthood, the measure would fail.
Yet one day after last week’s town hall, Heller walked back his support. “Senator Heller has worked hard to improve women's access to health care and the quality of care they receive,” said Heller’s spokeswoman in a statement to Axios. “While he doesn't have a problem with many of the health care services Planned Parenthood offers to women, he is opposed to providing federal funding to any organization that performs abortions and is supported by taxpayers' dollars; he has a long record that reflects his position.”
“Senator Dean Heller stood in front of 600 constituents at a town hall meeting and pledged to ‘protect Planned Parenthood,’” said Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund in response. “Senator Heller will be hearing over and over from his constituents that they expect him to live up to that promise.” Two days later, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund began airing TV ads in Reno and Las Vegas, urging voters to ask Heller to “keep his word.”
This past weekend, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards joined with Senator Bernie Sanders, and DNC Chair Tom Perez in Las Vegas to rally around a progressive agenda, including health care and reproductive rights.
“To prevent millions of folks in this country from losing access to health care, I need you to take out your phones and add Senator Dean Heller to your speed dial,” Richards told the crowd.