The biggest winner of the 2017 Legislature so far is no contest: It’s Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
We are not even at the halfway point, so this is a spectacular accomplishment for the Democratically controlled Legislature. Even those who don’t like or trust Laxalt, a presumed gubernatorial candidate, suddenly are cottoning to the idea of him holding court across the courtyard come 2019.
Echoing through the capital, special interests from gaming on down confront two political realities. The first is the Democratic leaders pursuing what is described -- and perhaps overly caricatured as -- an anti-business agenda. The second is the assumption that no matter what they do, the Democrats are favored to retain control of both houses after the 2018 elections.
If you think the Democrats will pursue policies their base constituencies desire and you think those goals are inimical to business, you want a backstop in the governor’s office. And that means you want a GOP governor, whether you like him or not.
Thus does the grudging caucus of Laxaltophiles begin to grow, seeking not true love but a marriage of convenience come campaign season. This is about practical politics, nothing more. It's made easier by the absence of a strong Democratic candidate to take on Laxalt, along with Republicans ceding the nomination to the attorney general 15 months before the primary. (No, Treasurer Dan Schwartz, you are not forgotten. You have proven you have no fear. But I don’t believe you will run.)
With the Democratic bench so weak, the prospect of an anointed Laxalt with a strong undercard in an off year should already be petrifying Democrats. But their legislative contingent may well be facilitating a 2018 wipeout, a 2014 redux.
Make no mistake: Laxalt is widely perceived as “Sheldon Adelson’s guy” by virtue of Gondolier Numero Uno’s robust donations and the integration of the Las Vegas Sands braintrust into the attorney general’s campaign operation. All of his top advisers also work for the man with the spacious office on Las Vegas Boulevard South. And all of this was reinforced by Laxalt's attempt to intervene on Adelson’s behalf in a civil suit, which has momentarily fueled Democratic hopes but so far yielded not much more than a story ignored by most other media outlets (including the one Adelson owns, which surely will be all in for Laxalt come 2018).
Democratic lawmakers have been frustrated in their attempts to embarrass Laxalt during the session. They have huffed and puffed at his refusal to appear at budget hearings, which Laxalt no doubt knows would swiftly turn to subjects having nothing to do with the salaries he wants to pay his deputies.
The Democrats have been flailing about for months for a strong candidate to take on Laxalt. Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak has the money and the desire, but running statewide from local government always comes with baggage. Some say Sisolack has too much. Entrepreneur Steve Cloobeck has even more money, but it’s one thing to generously donate to a raft of campaigns and quite another to successfully run one.
This is not to say Laxalt is invulnerable.
But when lobbyists for various business interests are calling their clients with the details of the latest you're-not-going-to-believe-this bill that just dropped in Carson City, it's easy to see why Laxalt is starting to find some new friends. Democrats already had the seeds planted with a proposed minimum wage increase, which the gaming industry doesn’t love, along with other efforts to undo the business-friendly laws of 2015. And then when you have an autonomous vehicle bill hearing that looks as if trial lawyers and their legislative friends will scuttle the promising new enterprise unless a new tort is created, well... people start to wonder.
Sure, much of this stuff, if the Democrats manage to pass it, will be vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval. But this is Sandoval’s last session, so uncertainty casts its long shadow. And businesses, large and small, hate uncertainty.
When you create the perception, if not the reality, that the trial lawyers will push an agenda that businesses abhor – and when both Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford and Speaker Jason Frierson are prominent members of the Bar – the attorney general’s calendar of appointments begins to get jammed. And we will soon see just how much Laxalt has raised between meetings for his unannounced campaign.
I know what some of you are thinking: Most of these business types were going to support Laxalt anyhow, so this column is silly.
Many of the gamers are uncomfortable with the Adelson-Laxalt bond and would surely help Sisolak (some already have because of his position) or some other Democrat. A Shadow Gov. Sheldon frightens some on the Strip.
Most businesses, in fact, would hedge their bets in a competitive gubernatorial race. But if they believe, in the post June 5 world, that the Democrats are hell-bent on pandering to the trial lawyers and labor, they will reluctantly but inevitably bet on Laxalt and thus, with Adelson.
Some of this talk may be mid-session hysteria, an affliction I have seen before and is often cured by sine die. Ford has in the past been viewed as a reasonable, moderate guy, and Frierson may be a calming influence on his caucus.
But right now, halfway through, gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt is the easy winner of the 2017 session.