Heller, attempting to stay out of GOP primary scuffles, sets his sights on attacking Sisolak

Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller blamed Gov. Steve Sisolak for putting the state “at the top of every bad list” in the country but refused to attack his Republican gubernatorial opponents during a Wednesday TV appearance.

Heller, who so far holds a substantial lead in the Republican gubernatorial primary over Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and other hopefuls, also touted his relationship with former President Donald Trump, describing himself as “the only person in the race” who has spent time in the White House and “helped write” Trump’s America First agenda. He added that Trump, whose endorsement he hopes to earn, could solve some of the biggest challenges facing the nation today within 24 hours “just by putting everybody on notice,” if the former president was still in office.

While Heller again refused to directly say that Biden is the president of the United States, he did indirectly acknowledge Biden’s position, saying that Trump “is far better than the president we have today.”

A former secretary of state, Heller also said he would have conducted a “forensic audit” into the results of the 2020 election in Nevada, repeating his assertion that Nevada has “some of the most corrupt election laws.” Lack of trust in politicians, he said, stems from a lack of trust in the electoral process.

Heller’s comments came during an interview with Sam Shad, host of Nevada Newsmakers. Fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate and Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore appeared on the show Tuesday.

Below are some highlights of the interview.

Gov. Steve Sisolak

Heller blamed Sisolak for high crime rates, high unemployment rates, low graduation rates and high suicide rates.

“Gov. Sisolak has put Nevada at the top of every bad list now in America,” he said. “... We can’t keep going on like this. This is bad.”

This wasn’t the first time Heller has blamed Sisolak for high crime rates. The data, however, show that while Las Vegas, like many other major cities, saw murders and assaults rise last year amid at-times violent protests and restrictions on public activity brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nevada continues to see its lowest levels of crime in decades.

Nevada continues to have the highest unemployment rate in the nation, though, as it has throughout the majority of the pandemic. The service industry was pummeled by a shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, and many hospitality workers — including 35 percent of the Culinary Union’s 60,000 members — remain out of work to this day. 

Despite efforts by both Sisolak and former Gov. Brian Sandoval to diversify the economy in the wake of the Great Recession — which also hit Nevada harder than any other state — Nevada continues to be heavily reliant on its tourism industry, which leaves the state vulnerable in economic bad times, whether a pandemic or recession.

Still, Heller told Shad he would not have shut down the state’s businesses for 78 days to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 as Gov. Steve Sisolak did. 

“I wouldn’t have shut down the state, I wouldn’t have required mask mandates, and I wouldn’t have shut down the state,” Heller said.

Only seven states — Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming — did not issue stay-at-home orders at the beginning of the pandemic, and 39 states issued statewide mask requirements at some point during the pandemic.

The other problems Heller mentioned — low graduation rates and high suicide rates — predate Sisolak’s entry to office in 2018.

Nevada’s graduation rates remain low, though Nevada actually saw years of growth in its graduation rates before pandemic learning disruptions saw 82.6 percent of students in the Class of 2020 graduate across the state, down 1.5 percentage points from the prior year. As of the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, Nevada had one of the lower graduation rates in the nation, though far from the lowest.

The state also has long had a high suicide rate — ranking third in the country with 19.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2005 — though rising suicide rates in other states dropped Nevada to 11th, also at 19.8 deaths per 100,000, by 2019, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has data.

Biden and Trump

As he has in previous public appearances, Heller again declined to name Joe Biden as the president of the United States — repeating the line, “We all know who the president of the United States is.”

“I just told you, I know who the president of the United States is. You know who the president of the United States is,” Heller said, pressed multiple times by Shad.

Later in the interview, he did, however, obliquely acknowledge Biden’s position as president, saying he believes Trump “is far better than the president we have today.”

He also suggested that if the country were to “bring Trump back,” the former president would be able to solve several issues — including inflation, oil prices and migrants at the southern border —  “within 24 hours … just by putting everybody on notice.” He did not offer further specifics.

Heller also touted himself as the only candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary who has “sat in the White House and helped write the America First agenda,” piggybacking on his assertion that he is the only “proven conversative” in the race — a nod to his lengthy record as assemblyman, secretary of state, congressman and U.S. senator.

“Not only did I help write [the America First agenda], I voted for it and I support it to this day,” Heller said. “I’m the only candidate in this race that has been in the White House helping Trump with his Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

Asked by Shad whether he anticipates receiving Trump’s endorsement — as Heller did in his 2018 reelection bid to the U.S. Senate — Heller said he hopes the former president sees what he’s doing and likes it. He added that he has not had direct contact with the former president, though he has been in contact with “people within his camp and circles,” who have been “all very positive.”

“I want him to like what I am saying, what my message is,” Heller said.

The Republican primary

Heller declined during the half-hour interview with Shad to go after any of his Republican primary opponents at any length. Asked by Shad about Fiore, Heller called her “a friend.”

“I’m not going to define my opponents in the primary. I want to make this race about Steve Sisolak … I’m not going to sit here on this show and pick them apart. What I do want to pick apart is Governor Sisolak,” Heller said.

He was similarly laudatory toward North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, whom he said had been “a very good mayor” for the city, though he did take a brief shot at Lee for being a former Democrat and highlighted the city’s unemployment rates.

“I think I’ve been a Republican longer in years than John Lee has been in days,” Heller said. “But, again, I’m not going to disparage a guy that has done a good job in North Las Vegas. His unemployment rate is a little high — I think it's the highest in the state — but he has done a remarkable job turning that state around — or that city around.”

The Independent’s October poll found only 3.3 percent support for Lee, compared to 31.3 percent for Heller and 23.2 percent for Lombardo in a Republican primary matchup. The poll was taken before Fiore entered the race.

Running for governor

It’s no secret Heller has long coveted the gubernatorial role. He first wanted to run for the state’s top office in 1998 and contemplated a bid in 2018, too — telling Politico he would consider it, before ruling it out as it became increasingly clear that Adam Laxalt, at the time the state’s attorney general, wanted to run for governor. 

Now, Laxalt is running for U.S. Senate and Heller, who grew up in Carson City, is taking a shot at the governor’s mansion — the office he has always wanted.

“This will be the most enjoyable race I’ve ever been involved in because this is what I want to do … I am doing exactly today what I want to do,” Heller said, “I don’t care how hard it is and how difficult this race is, I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”