Nevada Democratic Senate candidate Jacky Rosen is making a bet that she can run on immigration — and win

Rosen could shift the balance of power for Senate Democrats.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Democratic Senate candidate Jacky Rosen hopes backing from Harry Reid and Nevada’s powerful labor unions will put her over the top in a competitive race against longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV). At the moment, polls show the race in a dead heat.

If Democrats have any chance of flipping the Senate in 2018 — something election watchers characterize as long odds — Rosen needs to win. Now, she’d just like to win over some of Nevada’s moderate Republican voters.

“For me, it is easy to be that purple person,” Rosen told a group of African-American entrepreneurs at a recent campaign roundtable in Las Vegas.

 Mikayla Whitmore for Vox
Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), the Democratic candidate for Senate in Nevada, speaks with guests during a roundtable discussion in Las Vegas on September 15, 2018.

Rosen often emphasizes her bipartisan record and habit of working with Republicans on a range of issues, from the economy to elder care. She wants to fix America’s infrastructure, fill in potholes, and work with Republicans to do it.

But when it comes to the big-ticket issues in 2018 — health care and immigration — Rosen is fairly liberal. She agrees with her Democratic colleagues that the Affordable Care Act needs to be stabilized, and although she is not sold on the idea of the progressive rallying cry that is Medicare-for-all, she’d like to see a public option extended through Medicaid.

The same goes for immigration. Given the state’s large Latino population, Rosen has been an advocate for passing a clean DREAM Act, and she took a risky vote in January against a short-term spending bill to keep the government open. The backdrop of this vote included Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress frustrated that Republicans stonewalled a popular, bipartisan immigration bill to protect young, unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers, pitting the equally popular children’s health insurance program (or CHIP) against young immigrants.

“It was a false choice,” Rosen told me in a recent interview. “It’s something the Republicans put up there as a poison pill to force us to choose one group of children over another.”

 Mikayla Whitmore for Vox
Rosen poses with attendees at the Fiesta Las Vegas Festival celebrating Mexican heritage in North Las Vegas.

Rosen needs Latino voters on her side and turning out in large numbers if she is to prevail against Heller in November. And with some help from Reid, who is still a monumental figure in Nevada politics after his 2016 retirement, she is getting the ground troops she needs to turn out those votes.

The question remains if it will be in large enough numbers — and if independents and moderate Republicans will follow.

I traveled to Nevada and interviewed Rosen recently about what policy issues she thinks Senate Democrats should tackle, her vision for a public health insurance option, and her relationship with Reid. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

The latest polls show it’s a very close race for Senate. How are you feeling?

Jacky Rosen

I feel really good going into the home stretch. Everywhere I go, people recognize me, number one, every place I go. They all tell me how excited they are that I’m a real person that’s running for office, I’m not a career politician.

I think Sen. Heller who’s been guilty of flip-flop after flip-flop, especially on health care …he’s more worried about keeping his seat than he is about listening to [them]. We’re a small state, and I think people understand that.

Ella Nilsen

What are the main issues you have you been hearing about from voters?

Jacky Rosen

They’re so upset about the rising cost of health care, and uncertainty about it. They’re afraid they can’t afford the premiums, prescription drugs are going up and up. Do people take their kid to the doctor, or do they pay their rent? That’s not really a choice. And especially now, with Sen. Heller on those provisions, he wants to weaken protections for pre-existing conditions, it has put fear in people’s hearts.

Sen. Heller and I are total opposites on this. He wants to repeal it, he wants to take away all those essential health benefits, and I think that we have to make it stronger and make sure we have good health care, good access. They’re worried about retirement.

Of course, immigration is on the forefront. Whether you are in the Latino community, Muslim community or just in general, when you see those kids that are separated from their parents, nobody wants to see that. It is really cruel.

Ella Nilsen

I know a lot of your Democratic colleagues went to the border soon after the family separation policy was enacted. Did you end up going to the border?

Jacky Rosen

I did go to the border. I went to El Paso [Texas], Juarez, and I went across the border and came back in, talked to Customs and Border Patrol about people who are seeking asylum, how they’re taking care of them.

The thing that really concerned me was that they were only allowed two 10-minute phone calls or contacts a week with the outside world. And those contacts are monitored.

I saw teenagers, but there are still hundreds of children that haven’t been reunited with their parents. How are we going to find their parents? That’s despicable. If you’re going to put in a horrible policy like this, and you don’t know where children’s parents are … imagine if that was your kid.

Ella Nilsen

If Democrats are able to retake the House — and the Senate is looking slimmer, but you’re part of that effort to take back the Senate — what would you like to see Democrats pass for immigration reform?

Jacky Rosen

The first thing we need to do is pass that clean DREAM Act, and we need to protect those [Temporary Protected Status] recipients. Some of them have been here 15, 17 years. We have a few thousand of them in Southern Nevada.

Then after that, we need to have a really good, comprehensive plan that of course protects our borders, helps to grow our economy and provides pathways to citizenship. We know that we have a shortage of labor in this country. Even if we trained everyone magically today, every adult who could work, there’s still not enough people to do the jobs that we need. So we need to be sure that we have a good immigration policy that allows us to take care of that.

Ella Nilsen

If Democrats do take back the House and the Senate, what would you like to see the first policy priorities be?

Jacky Rosen

I think health care is the first thing we need to take on. They’ve been sabotaging our health care system for so many years, so we need to stabilize the system, boost up those cost-sharing reductions. We need to be sure that — I just introduced a bill, there’s also one on the Senate side — to cap prescription drug costs $250 individual, $500 for families.

People are so worried. They’re making choices; can I take my medication, or not. So we need to be able to give those families some certainty. We absolutely need to protect pre-existing conditions, those ten essential health benefits.

Ella Nilsen

What are your thoughts on Medicare-for-all?

Jacky Rosen

What I really believe is that, first of all, we have to stabilize what we have. Mend it, not end it. Eighty percent or so of people get their health care through their job. So for that 20 percent or so that need a public option, I honestly think — and we’ve been working on this in the Nevada state legislature — is we need a Medicaid buy-in, a Medicaid public option.

Ella Nilsen

You’ve emphasized the bipartisan nature of your record. Can you get moderate Republicans to vote for you?

Jacky Rosen

Oh, I absolutely think so. I think it’s probably because of my nature and my training as a computer programmer. You really have to look at the whole system.

There’s so many things, infrastructure especially, that we all agree on. We were talking about fixing the nation’s potholes, certain things. Education. There’s a lot more we probably agree on than we disagree.

Ella Nilsen

Are you ever in contact with Sen. Harry Reid? I know he’s not as politically active now, but has he given you any advice on running?

Jacky Rosen

Well, I’ve called him on some comfort calls. He’s suffering from cancer right now, but he’s doing pretty good. I’m glad to hear that and I’m lucky to speak to his wife, too — Landra. He’s hanging in there, I think he’s going to be okay.

What Sen. Reid has always told me is … ‘Know who you are, stay true to yourself, stay true to your values and be a straight shooter. Listen to what people have to say, and talk to them about the issues. If you do that, you’ll at least earn the respect from everybody around you.’ That really is great life advice.

Ella Nilsen

How is he doing these days?

Jacky Rosen

He’s a fighter, he’s going to be okay.

 Mikayla Whitmore for Vox
A campaign poster Jacky Rosen signed for a young volunteer a campaign event. It reads, “Always stay true to who you are & you will be successful.”