LAS VEGAS (AP) — Joe Heck, the newly announced Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada, on Monday criticized Donald Trump's comments about Mexican immigrants, saying entire ethnic groups can't be stereotyped.
The three-term congressman from Nevada, a state with 27 percent Hispanic population, played up his own immigrant family history and endorsed a path to citizenship for so-called "Dreamers" as he criticized Trump, a Republican presidential candidate and media mogul, for saying Mexicans come to the U.S. bringing crime, drugs and rape.
"That's Donald Trump's opinion, and certainly he said it only in a way that only he can, which is to promote himself and generate controversy," Heck said. "You can't stereotype an entire ethnicity, and that's what he attempted to do."
Heck is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Nevada Democrat Harry Reid against Reid's hand-picked candidate, former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. The matchup could be one of the top Senate races of 2016.
Heck highlighted immigration in a video announcement about his candidacy posted online earlier Monday and appeared ready for questions about his record in an interview with reporters in Las Vegas.
Heck, who has drawn criticism in his district for his stance on immigration, said he would have voted against a massive 2,000-page immigration reform bill that was blocked in Congress two years ago as too sweeping to be understood.
He said he wants to review and reshape immigration policies piece-by-piece, including border security, guest worker programs, visa violations and verification of immigration status for workers.
He said children of unauthorized immigrants deserve a chance to stay in the U.S. They're often referred to as "Dreamers" after the long-delayed federal DREAM Act that would create a path to citizenship for some immigrant U.S. high school graduates.
"Let's take care of the Dreamers, those children that came to this country through no fault of their own, that know no other nation but America," he said.
Heck, 53, said comments similar to those by Trump might have been made about his grandparents when they moved from Italy to New York.
Heck also highlighted his background as an emergency room doctor and on a military deployment to Iraq. He talked about the struggles his family endured growing up and having the help of a union and social services when his father was out of work.
"When my father needed emergency surgery, Medicare covered it. That's why I'll protect Medicare and Social Security and preserve it for future generations," Heck said in the three-minute video on his website.
Reid, 75, the Senate Democratic leader, announced in March that he wouldn't seek a sixth term after an exercise injury left him blind in one eye. He immediately backed Cortez Masto.
On the Republican side, popular Gov. Brian Sandoval announced last month that he wouldn't seek the seat held by Reid. Sandoval said he wanted to focus on improving the state's infrastructure and higher education system.
Other Republicans — Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, former Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert, Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers and former Lieutenant Gov. Brian Krolicki — also decided against running, clearing the way for Heck.
Sandoval, along with presidential candidates including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, took to Twitter to back Heck.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee responded with communications director Justin Barasky accusing Heck of spending his time in office "catering to insurance companies, big banks and Washington special interests."
Heck's entry into the Senate race leaves his House seat up for grabs.
Heck served in the state Senate between 2004 and 2008 and first won his congressional seat in 2010. He gained re-election by big margins in 2012 and 2014, even though Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration in the district.
Heck has spent more than two decades as an Army reservist, including three active-duty tours and a deployment in Iraq. He's the only one-star general in Congress.
Heck was born in New York and moved to Nevada in 1992. He lives in Henderson with his wife, Lisa, and three children.
Snyder reported from Carson City, Nev.