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The endangered GOP senator who thinks Justice Kennedy could save him

 n audio obtained by POLITICO, Nevada's Dean Heller predicts an imminent high court vacancy and calls some of Trump's tweets 'crazy.'

The 45-minute recording of the press-shy Dean Heller shows a senator defending President Donald Trump repeatedly, breaking only delicately with the president on issues like trade and gun control. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo


Dean Heller knows he’s the most vulnerable Republican senator in the country. But he thinks Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy might just help him hang on to his seat.

“Kennedy is going to retire around sometime early summer,” Heller predicted in Las Vegas last week, according to audio of an event he spoke at that was obtained by POLITICO. “Which I’m hoping will get our base a little motivated because right now they’re not very motivated. But I think a new Supreme Court justice will get them motivated.”

The 45-minute recording of the media-shy Heller shows a senator defending President Donald Trump repeatedly, breaking only delicately with the president on issues like trade and gun control. It’s in line with the tightrope Heller has to walk to have any hope of winning reelection against a Trump-inspired Republican primary opponent and a highly touted Democratic general election challenger — in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Heller can't afford to lose conservatives by breaking with Trump, yet must keep a lane to the center open to win a general election. It’s the trickiest political equation facing any GOP senator on the ballot this year.

“I’m not going to sit here and criticize him,” Heller said when asked about Trump’s flirtation with Democrats on gun control. “Because everything else he’s touched, like this economy, has been just incredible. So, I don’t want to get too far in front of some of these policies.”

Many Republicans credit the Supreme Court vacancy in 2016 with keeping the Senate in GOP control — and making Trump president. Heller went on to float Sen. Mike Lee for the job, calling the Utah Republican the type of conservative who could energize Nevada's electorate in the June 12 primary. Lee's office declined to comment.

“Mike Lee from Utah is probably on that short list of the next Supreme Court justice in our courts,” Heller said during the Q-and-A session with the J. Reuben Clark Law Society in Las Vegas Friday.
But Trump was clearly most on Heller's mind. He dinged the president’s “crazy” tweets about North Korea, before quickly crediting him with fostering better relations with its neighbor to the south. “North Korea joined South Korea and goes to the Olympics. And they say, the only reason they did that was because of President Trump,” Heller said.

The Nevadan once declared that he was “100 percent against Clinton, 99 percent against Trump” and opposed early drafts of the GOP’s plan to repeal Obamacare, much to Trump’s annoyance. But now it’s hard to get Heller to say a cross word about the president, whom Heller seems to view as an asset rather than an anchor.

Trump’s comment last week that he would “take the guns first, go through due process second” turned Heller into the president’s explainer-in-chief.

“I think he misspoke, I can’t imagine that this president believes that. I think today, he does not,” Heller said. “Negotiator as he is, he says, 'I’m going to take a big bite, just so that I can negotiate it back.' I think he’s doing the same thing on trade. I don’t agree with tariffs, but I’m not going to criticize at this point until I see an end result.”

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