Dean Heller launches bid for governor, attempts political comeback three years after Senate loss

Republican former Sen. Dean Heller officially launched a bid for governor on Monday, attempting to re-enter the political sphere he inhabited for decades before he was defeated in a 2018 re-election bid that found him struggling to navigate a fraught relationship with then-President Donald Trump.

At a launch event in a cramped and low-slung building in the town he grew up in, Carson City, he staked out firmly conservative positions on abortion and suggested a top Clark County election official should have been removed for his decisions in the 2020 election. Heller said he was OK with being done with politics after his loss three years ago but was inspired to return to the fray.

“Something happened, something changed. It was called 2020. 2020 happened, bad politicians started making bad decisions,” he said. “And I said to my family, ‘Enough is enough. We have to do something about this.’ So we're here today because I believe it's time to fire Steve Sisolak.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller launches his gubernatorial campaign on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 at the Carson City Republican Party office. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

His debut raises the stakes in a race considered a referendum on Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the pandemic. Heller has already centered the lightning rod issue of COVID mitigation measures in his campaign, releasing a video over the weekend denouncing business shutdowns and rules that had his grandchildren playing soccer in masks.

In his announcement speech, he blamed Sisolak for putting Nevada “at the top of every bad list in America,” including for unemployment rates, crime rates, graduation rates and suicide rates, adding that “under this governor, families are being crushed.”

While not directly saying the 2020 election was invalid (he said “I know who the president of the United States is, we're not arguing that. What I am arguing is the process and how we got there), Heller criticized recent voting legislation and said “we made it easier to cheat in future elections.” He vowed that if he’s elected governor, “you're not going to wonder if elections are fair” and that his first order of business would be enacting voter ID by executive order.

“After the 2020 election, most Republicans believe President Trump had won that election. This is chaos and this chaos continues over and over,” Heller said. 

He noted that as secretary of state, he removed a registrar who he thought was doing a poor job, and suggested he would have done the same with Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria, accusing Gloria of saying “I am going to manipulate our machines” to accept a high number of signatures on ballots as valid.

“I would have been tempted to do that, yes. I would have petitioned the county commissioners to remove this guy," Heller said.  

He said he wouldn’t mandate the vaccine against COVID, but noted that he was vaccinated himself, and said “I will emphasize and I will impress upon my fellow Nevadans that I think it's very important.”

Asked if he would support a law like Texas’ that allows private citizens to sue people who facilitate an abortion after six weeks of gestation, Heller said “I like what Texas did.” Polls consistently show Nevadans support abortion rights by significant margins, and voters in 1990 reaffirmed the legality of abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation.

“As governor, I'll get the most conservative abortion laws that we can have in this state, regardless with who's controlling the Legislature at the time,” he said. 

Heller’s position on abortion has evolved over the years. In 2006, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that “I do back a woman's right to choose abortion. It is the conservative position."

At an event in Las Vegas later on Monday, Heller sought to clarify his comments about the Texas legislation, adding that he would want a ban on abortions past six weeks to include exceptions for rape or incest. 

“I probably should clarify — I don't really know everything that was in that law,” he said. “I like the concept of it, but I know that they're going to have some problems, some issues, and frankly, it's going to be challenged, so let's see where it goes from there.”

From left, Assemblyman P.K. O'Neil, former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, Assemblyman Jim Wheeler and former Assemblyman Al Kramer at the launch of Heller's gubernatorial campaign on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 at the Carson City Republican Party office. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Heller’s campaign materials cultivate an image of rural masculinity, with the video showing him racing in a stock car, touting his welding skills and hoisting bales of hay on his farm. A narrator describes him as “kind” and with “a smile that never quits,” but also “tough as nails,” and ends with the words, “That’s a governor.”

But to have that title, he’ll first have to triumph in a crowded primary, and without the campaign consultant team that has guided his previous campaigns — that firm, November Inc., was enlisted by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who is also trying to chart a more mainstream Republican course through the race. Heller’s video subtly took aim at Lombardo’s complicated position on guns, featuring the former senator target shooting.

Heller’s campaign launch video also suggested that “defunding the police” was happening “right now in Nevada.” Asked about what that was referring to, Heller said, “I'm gonna have more information on that in the next couple of days. So I’d rather wait on that answer.”

Lombardo is focusing his campaign around promises to veto any new taxes, including an income tax. While an income tax has not been a discussion point in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Lombardo said that he incorporated the argument into his campaign because “the governor could advise the public to vote for it.”

Similar to Heller, Lombardo is pushing for election integrity measures, which he said is important even though election officials have said there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

“There's a perception, and if there's a perception there's maybe some truth to it,” Lombardo told The Nevada Independent on Saturday during an event celebrating a new campaign office in Las Vegas. “Why not fix it going forward? Why not remove the rumors and the perception and even the ability to commit fraud into the future, if you have the ability to do that.”

Better Nevada PAC, a pro-Lombardo entity, has already started targeting Heller over abortion, including by disseminating a video clip of a 2017 town hall when Heller said “I will protect Planned Parenthood.”

Others in the contest include Joey Gilbert, a firebrand lawyer and former boxer whose face and fists greet motorists from billboards along Reno freeways and in the airport. He was in Washington D.C. the day of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, has challenged the validity of the election and has been trying to persuade rural county commissions to retain him to sue the governor over the ongoing state of emergency.

Heller, for his part, told reporters about the incidents of Jan. 6 that he did not have a problem with people protesting, “but they crossed the line when they broke into that Capitol and did what they did … don't put me in that category of being in favor of what occurred on that day.”

Heller, 61, began his political career in 1990 as a state assemblyman, then served three terms as secretary of state and two terms in Congress before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2011 after then-Sen. John Ensign resigned.

He notched moderate bona fides in an increasingly purple Nevada in 2013, when he supported an immigration reform bill and voted in 2015 not to pursue a bill to unravel the DACA program, which gives legal status to people brought to the country illegally as children.

But he stumbled when navigating the era of Donald Trump, and didn’t acknowledge voting for him until nine months after the 2016 election. Two years later, he appeared alongside Trump at a campaign event in Elko and told the president “I think everything you touch turns to gold.”

A protester dressed as an “inflatable tube man” outside of former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller’s gubernatorial campaign launch on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 at the Carson City Republican Party office. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Acknowledging that it was fair to say he had a tenuous relationship with Trump at times, Heller said in Las Vegas on Monday that “I would love to have President Trump’s endorsement” in the governor’s race.

As a senator, he also struggled to navigate the issue of health care, voting to support a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act but also holding a press conference with then-Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2017 saying he could not support a bill that would take insurance away from tens of millions of Americans.

Following a 2018 campaign in which he was mocked for his fluid policy positions, he lost to Democratic political newcomer Jacky Rosen by a five percentage point margin.

Michael Fletcher, a small business owner and family friend of Heller’s, said he’s worried Sisolak’s connections to unions will lead to increased taxes that will raise prices on consumers and hurt small businesses. 

“Sisolak’s not somebody I trust,” Fletcher said. “I think he’s too bought in by the unions. He’s at their will and I think that’s not good for Nevada.”

Josh Groth, a pilot who flies cargo internationally, came to the campaign kickoff with some friends. Heller’s announcement and stance on voter identification laws struck Groth.

“I think those are powerful things to be able to protect ... the right to maintain a democratically representative government, and be able to vote with integrity and ensure that we don't even leave any leeway for people to have skepticism about the integrity of that election system,” Groth said.

Groth said he is also worried about his two children’s education. During the pandemic, he watched as his children who are in elementary school sat in front of a computer screen for six hours a day — a learning method that he described as “not viable.” 

“I think [Heller] will try and get to the point where he allows people to make individual choices and decisions for themselves, for their communities, for their families, and for the state,” Groth said. “I hope that we'll be able to get some policies that are enacted that enable us to be able to live the life that Nevada has always represented.”

Tim Lenard contributed to this report.

Lombardo’s law enforcement background highlighted in new PAC ad blitz

Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is getting a boost through a new political action committee’s significant, six-figure advertising blitz touting his law enforcement bonafides.

The ad, paid for by Better Nevada PAC, juxtaposes footage of “radical, anti-police riots” in other cities during protests against police brutality last year with idyllic footage of Lombardo talking and walking through suburban parks and neighborhoods.

“Joe Lombardo made our rights as law-abiding citizens his first priority. He's a conservative leader, not a follower,” the ad states. “Good luck defunding the police with Sheriff Joe Lombardo as our next governor.”

Nevada, and specifically Las Vegas and Reno, saw heated and at times violent protests against police brutality in the immediate aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — more than two dozen police were injured (including the paralyzation of Shay Mikalonis) while dozens more protesters were arrested or forcibly dispersed from protest areas. More than 24 businesses in downtown Las Vegas were damaged by vandalism, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The ads are produced and paid for by Better Nevada PAC, a political action committee registered last month that has not yet filed any campaign finance reports with the secretary of state’s office (the deadline to do so comes at the end of the calendar year). Nevada law allows state-based political action committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

According to a spending summary shared with The Nevada Independent, the group will spend north of $171,000 combined through ads placed on broadcast, cable and radio platforms primarily in the Reno and Las Vegas media markets.Lombardo, who officially launched his gubernatorial campaign in late June, is part of a potentially crowded Republican primary for the right to face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Though the candidate filing period doesn’t open until March, several major candidates who have already jumped in the race include North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Reno attorney Joey Gilbert and businessman Guy Nohra. Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei are also weighing possible gubernatorial bids.

Clark County Sheriff Lombardo announces run for governor as Republican; says he’ll veto new taxes, take ‘law and order’ tack

Citing his law enforcement credentials and a need to end one-party rule in state government, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo on Monday officially launched his gubernatorial campaign with promises to veto tax increases and roll back many of the policies instituted under Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democrats.

Lombardo, 58, officially announced his campaign for governor at a speech at Rancho High School in Las Vegas — where he graduated from in 1980 — and promised that if elected governor, he would serve as a check on legislative Democrats on issues from taxes to elections and education.

“I have been elected twice as a conservative in our state's bluest county. I have never compromised on principles to get elected, and won’t do so now,” said Lombardo, whose previous sheriff campaigns were in nonpartisan races. “Today, I'm standing here to announce my candidacy for governor, because if we don't put an end to the single-party rule eroding our state of the values, laws and opportunities to make Nevada great, we won't have a lot left to fight for.”

Much of Lombardo’s speech on Monday previewed his coming campaign messaging — including calling Sisolak the “most partisan governor in Nevada history” and saying Sisolak has copied the “worst policies of some of the most liberal governors in the country.” Lombardo also promised to block any effort to teach critical race theory in public schools, to back efforts requiring identification to vote and rolling back several Democrat-backed election changes including ballot collection and expanded mail voting.

Lombardo, who plans to embark on a statewide campaign launch tour this week, joins what may become a crowded Republican primary to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in the 2022 midterms. 

Other announced candidates include North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent convert to the Republican Party, and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, who argues that Trump actually won the last election. Rep. Mark Amodei and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller are also weighing potential bids. Former Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, once considered a potential candidate, has endorsed Lombardo.

Lombardo, who is in his second term as Clark County sheriff, hinted that one of his major campaign themes will be his law enforcement experience. He said that “police reform is needed” but that legislators were moving too fast and creating an “environment where the police are handcuffed.”

“What we currently have is ... a sense up in Carson City that we're more concerned with felons’ rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” he told reporters after the event. “That's a paradigm, or that's a program that just doesn't breed success into the future. We have to change that.”

After his Las Vegas kickoff, Lombardo headed to a Reno wine bar in the evening, holding a meet-and-greet at the Napa-Sonoma restaurant. He pitched his candidacy to the roughly 40 people in attendance, mirroring his rhetoric in Las Vegas, and took questions from attendees on elections, guns, education and more.

Former educator Sandy Horning, 77, said she appreciated Lombardo’s background in law enforcement and had a strong grasp on improving schooling across the state. 

“He knows what’s going on in the streets … he’s very impressive with education,” the Reno resident said. “I think he hit all the high spots.”

Carson City high schooler Jessica Gonzalez, 16, said she liked Lombardo’s speech but sought more detail on what his campaign hopes to achieve. 

“I wanted him to go more in depth on how he’s going to defend our rights and how he’s going to explain to the younger people how he is going to reach them,” she said.

A cadre of Democrat-aligned groups including the Democratic Governors Association and Nevada Democratic Victory issued statements on Monday panning Lombardo’s announcement. DGA Executive Director Noam Lee accused him of walking “every partisan ideological line as he’s pretended to represent the constituents he promised to serve and protect while trying to avoid estranging the Republican base he needs for his pending political career.”

Asked by reporters on Monday if he would seek the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, Lombardo said “seek” is an “arbitrary word” but would accept the former president’s endorsement if offered.

“If I receive it, I'll embrace it. Sure,” he said. “You know, anybody that's willing to endorse me and what I believe in, and the direction I want to go in, I'm not going to turn them away.”

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announces his candidacy to run for Nevada governor during a news conference in Las Vegas on Monday, June 28, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Taxes

In addition to pledging to veto any new taxes, Lombardo said he would oppose any efforts to introduce a state income tax, raise property taxes or any other efforts to “advance public policy that would make Bernie Sanders blush.”

Asked whether he would seek to repeal or lower any existing state taxes, Lombardo said that would be a “matter of evaluation as we move forward” and promised to evaluate all existing tax sources. He said the state needed to develop a “tax environment” to attract other industries outside the casino industry to help to diversify the state’s economy.

“You have to be living in a cave not to see that the casino, the mother milk of our economy, will not continue to support us in perpetuity into the future,” he said.

Elections

In his remarks, Lombardo pledged to “undo the reckless partisan policies out of Carson City, and replace them with election law that is transparent, honest and fair.” 

He promised to support requiring some form of identification to vote, eliminate ballot collection or “ballot harvesting” where non-familial individuals are allowed to turn in mail ballots, and to repeal the “new practice of mailing ballots to people who did not request them.”

That’s a reference to AB321, a bill permanently expanding and enshrining expanded mail voting used in the 2020 election that passed on party lines in the 2021 legislative session. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak earlier this month, making Nevada the sixth state to adopt a largely all-mail voting system.

Lombardo also said he would support a bipartisan “election integrity commission” to oversee elections and “guarantee fairness,” and the creation of a non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission to draw new boundary lines for congressional and legislative districts.

Asked by reporters if he believed that the 2020 election in Nevada was accurate, Lombardo said he wasn’t “privy” to the data but believed the current electoral system “makes it easy for people to commit fraud.”

“Your question is, ‘Do I think there was fraud in everything?’ I'm not even going to give you an answer on that,” he said. “My concern is moving forward and how we can better make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

The Trump campaign and Nevada Republican Party filed lawsuits and repeatedly made claims of fraud in the weeks and months following the state’s 2020 election. All of the lawsuits failed to make headway in state and federal courts, and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office released two reports finding no evidence of “wide-spread fraud” in the 2020 election.

Immigration 

Among the challenges Lombardo will face in a Republican primary is defending himself over his 2019 decision to withdraw from the 287(g) collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His decision came after a lawsuit from the ACLU and a subsequent court ruling in California that determined “detainers” — holding people in local custody for extra time to allow ICE to detain them — constituted a new arrest and violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless arrests.

Immigrant advocates, who argue that local police should stay out of immigration enforcement so immigrants can report crime to police without fear of detainment or deportation during the interaction, have said that Metro continues less-formal collaborations with ICE absent the title. Lombardo said that after withdrawing from the program, Metro “dedicated more internal resources to … identifying and deporting violent criminals.” 

“There's been a lot of rhetoric out there that I have created a sanctuary jurisdiction. That is absolutely not true,” Lombardo said. “What we did is adjust, moved resources and addressed the problem to move forward, versus backing up and say, ‘We raised our hands and gave up.’” 

Guns

Lombardo has also struck a more moderate tone on firearm issues, telling the Nevada Firearms Coalition during a question-and-answer panel last week that he supports universal background checks on firearm purchases, opposed “constitutional carry” and tepid support for limits on high capacity magazines.

“I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. “This isn't rhetoric. I've carried a gun every day for more than 30 years in the Army as a cop and as your sheriff. I will always support the rights of law-abiding citizens to responsibly own and carry guns.”

Policing and criminal justice reforms

Lombardo took aim at Democratic state leaders for being “more concerned with felons rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” and said he would distinguish himself from his Republican primary opponents by taking the “law and order lane.”

“Yes, police reform is needed ... I appreciate that and we have looked at that, but it's adapting too fast,” he said. “We have created an environment where the police are handcuffed and have an inability to do their job.”

Lawmakers in 2019 passed a comprehensive bill aimed at reducing penalties for certain crimes and ultimately reducing the prison population. The goal is to use the hundreds of millions of dollars in anticipated savings for “reinvestment” activities, such as better preparing inmates for reentering the community.

In 2021, lawmakers passed a bill to decriminalize low-level traffic offenses on near-unanimous votes and decriminalized jaywalking unanimously, making it a civil infraction without the possibility of arrest. On policing, they passed a bill requiring ample warning to protesters before deploying tear gas, calling for data collection on the demographics of people stopped for traffic violations and requiring police maintain an “early warning system” for “bias indicators or other problematic behavior” among officers. 

Progressives have characterized the policing reforms as largely just codifying Metro’s existing policies and not going far enough, while police agencies and certain police unions have framed them as demoralizing for officers and part of an anti-police narrative.

Lombardo also addressed interactions between police and protesters — an issue that came up in the summer of 2020 amid frequent racial justice demonstrations.

“While Portland, Seattle in Baltimore gave into rioters, looters and vandals, we instituted a zero tolerance policy for violence,” Lombardo said. “Let me be clear, I will always stand up for the rights of anyone to peacefully protest. But if you intend to bring harm to our people, our communities, or those visiting in our community, you will face the full force of the law.”

At least six people face charges for graffiti, breaking windows and other property damage to a federal courthouse at one of the protests in Las Vegas last summer. Las Vegas police say they handled 318 protests last year, and updated their police and protest response protocols that year, including only deploying pepper spray if approved by a supervisor.

Death penalty

Lombardo expressed support for the continued use of the death penalty as a way to curb crime, as the Clark County district attorney's office is currently pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Floyd would be the first execution in the state since 2006.

“I believe that there's a need for it,” Lombardo said. “I believe that it's a natural deterrent in the mindset of a criminal, and it's a solution for individuals that have committed egregious crimes against society.”

Lawmakers made the most significant progress to date on an effort to repeal the death penalty during the 2021 session, as members of the Assembly voted 26-16 along party lines to pass a bill that would abolish the penalty. However, the measure was spiked by the governor and Democratic leaders in the Senate, after Sisolak said that the penalty was warranted in extreme circumstances.

Education

Lombardo criticized Sisolak on education policy, saying the Democratic governor has failed to provide a plan to reduce class size and opposes school choice, although the sheriff offered only broad-strokes statements about his own plans for K-12 and higher education.

On his website, Lombardo says he supports school choice and wants to expand Opportunity Scholarships, a tax credit-funded program that gives lower-income students scholarships to attend private K-12 schools. Democrats backed legislation in 2021 to preserve funding for the program as part of a compromise to raise taxes on the mining industry, after previously barring new entrants to the program.

Lombardo also nodded to building out workforce development programs.

“We must bring back and focus on trades so Nevada can attract good paying manufacturing jobs, and we must do a better job of keeping our best and brightest right here in Nevada,” Lombardo said.

He also invoked a topic that in recent months has exploded in popularity on conservative media outlets such as Fox News and has spurred states to limit how teachers approach issues such as racism and sexism — critical race theory. State officials have said the decades-old academic study area of critical race theory is not included in state academic standards, although concepts such as social justice and diversity are.

“As governor, I will block any time to force critical race theory on our public school children,” Lombardo said. “We can teach our children to respect each other, and treat everyone with dignity.”

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announces his candidacy to run for Nevada governor during a news conference in Las Vegas on Monday, June 28, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Background

Lombardo, the son of an Air Force Veteran, was born in Japan before moving to Las Vegas in 1976 and graduating from Rancho High School in 1980. Hired by Metro in 1988 after serving in the Army and National Guard from 1980 to 1986, Lombardo steadily rose through the ranks of the state’s largest police force before being hired as assistant sheriff in 2011.

After nearly 30 years at Metro, Lombardo opted to run for Clark County sheriff in 2014. Described as a “policy wonk” by the Las Vegas Sun, Lombardo won endorsements from multiple former sheriffs including Doug Gillespie, Bill Young and Ralph Lamb, and ultimately won the nonpartisan race on a narrow 51 to 49 percent split over Retired Metro Captain Larry Burns — who was endorsed by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents rank-and-file Metro officers.

In his first term, Lombardo took steps to decentralize operations for detectives and to re-open shuttered substations closed because of budget cuts.

Lombardo also attracted international attention and notoriety as the face of law enforcement response to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left 60 people dead and nearly 550 people injured. For weeks, Lombardo oversaw the investigation and provided information to the public and news media on details of the mass shooting, though his office fought efforts by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to release public records related to the event.

Lombardo won re-election to a second term in 2018, winning the nonpartisan race outright with more than 73 percent of the vote. His first campaign ad included appearances by former Gov. Brian Sandoval, and prominent state Democrats including former state Sen. Yvanna Cancela and Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

Lombardo bucks GOP line on guns, supports universal background checks but pushes back on recent gun control bills

Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo eschewed traditional GOP orthodoxy on firearm issues by voicing support for universal background checks on firearms sales, but also promising to repeal or restrict other gun control measures approved in past years by Democrats in the Legislature if elected.

Lombardo, who plans to kick off his campaign on Monday in Las Vegas, struck a more moderate tone than some Republican candidates on firearms issues in an hour-long Zoom question-and-answer session with members of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. Moderator Randi Thompson, the group’s lobbyist, noted that police tend to be more hesitant to encourage gun ownership “because they're dealing with it every day.”

“It's tough to be an officer and be pro gun,” she said. “But I know that you're there, protecting the people and you want to keep the honest people honest, and you want to put the bad guys behind bars and that's really all we can ask you to do at the end of the day.”

During the panel, the sheriff of the state’s largest county reiterated his support of universal background checks (while criticizing the state’s 2016 ballot background check ballot initiative as poorly written) as well as limits on certain high-capacity magazines. But Lombardo said that if elected governor, he would be willing to revisit and potentially repeal several gun control measures passed in recent legislative sessions, including the state’s so-called ‘Red Flag’ law and a measure banning so-called “ghost guns,” which are homemade firearms without serial numbers.

The deep dive into firearm policy issues and Lombardo’s more moderate stances — which included opposition to “constitutional carry” and tepid support for limits on high capacity ammunition magazines — is likely to strike a stark dividing line between the sheriff and other Republican gubernatorial hopefuls. 

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent convert to the Republican Party who has adopted some of former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, who argues that Trump actually won the last election, have already announced bids to challenge Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2022. Rep. Mark Amodei and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller are also weighing bids for the office.

Lombardo also previewed parts of his upcoming campaign message, saying the job of law enforcement has become “extremely challenging” because of calls to defund the police, adding that officers don’t want to give the same effort to their jobs if they feel they are not supported by the people they serve. He also took a jab at Sisolak’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the progressive policies discussed in the Legislature. 

“Bail reform, sentencing reform, handcuffing of police, all that matters. And that's indicative of the crime rates that are occurring across the United States right now,” he said. “The crooks are getting more rights than the victims.”

Below are other highlights from the forum.

Ghost guns

Lombardo fielded several questions on AB286, a bill banning so-called ‘ghost guns,’ that recently passed the Legislature on party lines with all Republicans opposed. The measure generally prohibits an individual from possessing, purchasing, transporting or receiving any unfinished frame or receiver of a firearm, or assembling any firearm not imprinted with a serial number. 

Lombardo said that Las Vegas police have only tracked six instances of homemade, non-serialized firearms over the past 12 months. He said none of the firearms were used in a crime, and most were found in the Las Vegas Strip corridor.

The sheriff — who is named in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law — said his department was neutral on the bill because “we enforce the laws, we don’t make them in the law enforcement community” but that he would “absolutely deny” the bill as governor.

Lombardo added that Las Vegas police wouldn’t be zealous in enforcement of the new law.

“We are not proactive as a police department, nor would I give direction with the police department, to be proactive in that space,” he said.

Red flag orders

Lombardo said he would be open to repealing the state’s so-called “Red Flag” or extreme risk protection order law, which gives family members and law enforcement the ability to petition a judge for a court order that allows for the seizure and suspension of firearm possession rights for up to a year, even if the person has not been arrested or convicted of a crime.

The sheriff said that law enforcement found the law to be “frustrating,” saying that the process only involved the court system and the state’s firearm sales background check system but not patrol officers, who “have no idea whether you're a prohibited person when we encounter you.”

Lombardo said that Metro has seen only two applications for the extended protection orders since the law was passed in 2019, and both of them were never processed by the state. He said that patrol officers typically don’t have a lot of knowledge about a person’s mental state to make that kind of evaluation.

“I think that law has gotten too convoluted. It's amiss in its original intent, and it's not benefiting either side of the house,” he said. “So to answer your question, yes, I would consider repealing it.”

Background checks

Lombardo said he supports universal background checks.

“People that shouldn't have guns shouldn't have the ability to get guns,” he said. “There's always that mantra that folks are going to get them, no matter what; the universal background check isn't going to fix it. That doesn't mean you don't create a system that could prevent bad guys from getting guns.”

But he said he was neutral on a 2016 state ballot question on the matter because it was “poorly written.”

The ballot initiative, Question 1, passed by less than one percentage point after being opposed by all 16 other county sheriffs and most Republican officials in the state. It called for private party transfers of guns to go through licensed dealers for a background check, but there were questions about whether it could be enforced because it called for the FBI to do the checks and the FBI declined.

Lombardo said that he’s been carrying a gun for 34 years during his military service and police career, but that there should be requirements to ensure responsible and safe gun ownership.

“It’s a very huge responsibility to own a firearm. No matter how some people see it, in my opinion, it’s a huge responsibility,” he said.

Concealed carry backlog

Lombardo gave a detailed response to why applicants for concealed carry permits are experiencing significant delays in booking an appointment and having applications processed.

In Clark County, there has been a sharp increase in applications for concealed carry permits. Lombardo said that from 2017 to 2019, the county was averaging about 16,000 such applications a year, but received 37,000 in 2020, and is keeping up a similar pace in 2021.

He said he transferred four employees and a supervisor to the unit to address the application backlog, and then a few weeks ago, added another six people to the task. He said he is also increasing the number of appointments available.

But he said multiple required steps involving data transfers to the state, as well as limitations in technology — including the high costs of machines that can take fingerprints — slow the process.

“I guarantee you your viewers are going to be frustrated and they're going to be, ‘what are you talking about? It's 2021. Technology is here and it should be a lot easier to do,’” he said. “But the government is quite often years and light years behind.”

Constitutional carry

Lombardo said he opposes making Nevada a “constitutional carry” state, in which residents need not obtain a concealed weapons permit to have a gun on their person.

That’s because he supports the training requirements involved in obtaining a permit, which entail completion of an eight-hour CCW safety course and registration with the local law enforcement. Officials screen out prohibited people, including individuals who have felony convictions, are subject to restraining orders or have any of a host of other disqualifying factors.

Lombardo said the requirements are not overly onerous, and thinks mandating training as a prerequisite for a permit ensures that people actually get training.

“If we don’t require it, people won’t do it. more often than not,” he said.

High capacity magazine bans

Asked about his 2016 comments to the Las Vegas Sun in support of limits on high-capacity magazine sales, Lombardo said he never specified a number of rounds and that about 30 bullets per magazine, or the manufacturer's intended specifications, were “probably about right.” 

He said his comments at the time were more focused on a law enforcement perspective, noting that the October 1 mass shooter had thousands of rounds of ammunition available in his hotel room, and that the breaks required to reload a gun gives law enforcement a window of opportunity to stop a shooter.

“When we encounter a critical incident or mass shooting, the only time we've ever had the upper hand in that, besides an overwhelming force …is if it was an individual officer when an assailant or suspect had to change the magazine, we have one or two seconds to intervene, hopefully stop the threat,” he said. “That was the context of that question.”

If elected governor, Lombardo said the issue of banning high-capacity magazines was a “non-starter” and “not even a discussion for me to have.”

Nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have implemented bans on large capacity magazines.

Why he’s running

Lombardo said the state has not put enough emphasis on Pre-K education — something that he says could “change our ranking from 50 to 25 overnight.” And he said the state is not putting enough emphasis on training people for “blue collar” trades, particularly in high school and at the community college level. 

Lombardo called for reinstating accountability measures, such as the mandate that students learn to read by grade three. Previously, Nevada law called for children to be retained if they could not read at grade level by third grade, but the mandate was eliminated in 2019.

Lombardo also said that the current arrangement in which Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and hold the governor’s post is a “failed system” that goes against the values of push and pull between two parties.

He also asserted that the politically powerful Culinary Union and the teacher’s union are running the state government rather than the governor and the Legislature.

He specifically faulted Sisolak’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying decisions about capacity limits in businesses were not grounded in science. The subjective nature of the restrictions made it hard for the people who have to enforce those rules, according to the sheriff.

“It was too willy nilly. He was moving the goalposts on a continual basis,” Lombardo said.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham looking to attend Laxalt Basque Fry as former AG eyes Senate race

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Wednesday he hopes to attend former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s Basque Fry in August as Senate Republicans hope to win back the majority in the midterm elections by focusing on conservative issues that they argue resonate with Latinos in Nevada and other swing states.

“I’m looking at that,” Graham said. “I don’t know if I can make it. Adam’s a good guy and would be a good candidate for us out there.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, would not rule out attending.

So far, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is the only confirmed Republican senator set to attend. Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) said he was invited but can’t make it due to his schedule. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said he has no plans to attend. Both have attended in the past. 

Laxalt, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018, is considering running against Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), who is seeking re-election after her first term in office. 

Scott confirmed that he had spoken with Laxalt, former Sen. Dean Heller and other potential candidates that he would not name. Heller now appears to be laying the groundwork to run for governor.  

“I've talked to quite a few people in Nevada,” Scott said. “Ultimately, it's a personal decision whether people want to run or not.”

President Joe Biden won Nevada by just two percentage points and the NRSC is eyeing Cortez Masto’s seat as it looks to pick up the one seat Republicans need to break the Senate’s 50-50 party split. For the moment, Democrats control the chamber through Vice President Kamala Harris, who can break tie votes. 

On Thursday, the NRSC released a poll conducted in Spanish of 1,200 Latino voters in eight swing states, including Nevada, that it believes shows that Latinos are allied with the GOP on issues such as immigration and capitalism. 

While the poll only included 300 Latinos from Nevada, Scott argued that the survey shows that the GOP can connect with Latinos and win them over. That's something Scott prides himself in doing after winning a close Senate race in 2018. Scott beat his Democratic opponent by 10,033 votes.

“If you look at this poll, they're like a typical Republican,” Scott said Wednesday. “They're aspirational. They have a faith in God. They care about freedom. They care about opportunity. They're not into big government. They want the rule of law, and they want good schools. That's a Republican.”

Jazmin Vargas, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said that the poll didn’t reflect the unpopularity of Republicans’ policies with Latinos. She cited Republican opposition to the American Rescue Plan, which was enacted in March and provided $4 billion for Nevada and direct payments of $1,400 for most individuals. 

“A fake poll from the NRSC won’t change Senate Republicans’ record of attacking Latinos’ access to affordable care, their refusal to support DREAMers, and their unanimous vote against a coronavirus relief package that has provided direct economic relief to millions of Latino families and small businesses,” Vargas said, adding that a poll in April showed that 76 percent of Latinos approve of the law.

“Latinos will hold every Senate Republican accountable for their toxic agenda in November next year,” Vargas continued.

Conducted by OnMessage Inc., a Virginia-based Republican political polling and consulting firm, the NRSC poll also had respondents from Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

The survey found that 63 percent of those polled agreed that “capitalism is the best form of government because it gives people the freedom to work and achieve their potential.”

The question reflects Republicans’ strategy to paint Democrats as too liberal. It also comes after the leadership of the Nevada Democratic Party was taken over by a slate of Democratic Socialist candidates in March.

On immigration, 72 percent agreed that the government “should do what is necessary to control our southern border and stop the surge of illegal immigration happening right now.” 

Another 69 percent opposed “allowing illegal immigrants to receive the same welfare and unemployment benefits as citizens.” 

Fifty-eight percent also said they agreed that too many people were living off of government assistance.

Scott, who also served as Florida governor, said he planned to use the poll to show his fellow Republicans what is possible when it comes to talking to Latino voters.

“I did it in my races, so there's no reason we can't do it across the country,” Scott said.

Scott said he did not know if there would be a contentious primary for the GOP nomination in Nevada, but he said that tough primaries can help fortify a candidate for the general election. 

Asked whether he believes former President Donald Trump would play a role, Scott said he hopes he does, adding that Trump remains popular with GOP voters.

“If you look around the country, his agenda is very popular,” Scott said. “So I think he can be helpful.”

Trump’s endorsement could give any contender an edge in the primary, and Laxalt, who won Trump’s backing for his 2018 gubernatorial bid, helped lead an effort in Nevada to spread false claims that improprieties in the state's election led to Trump’s defeat. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also eyed Laxalt for the Senate race. 

But with a recent rise in nonpartisan voter registration, a candidate that embraces the idea that the election was stolen could run the risk of turning off independent voters in a general election.

Graham said that Trump and other Republican candidates would be wise to move on from the 2020 election.

“I think there comes a point where you need to pivot forward,” Graham said. “Generally speaking, 2022 is about ‘what are you going to do for me and my family.’”

Graham said Trump is not the first politician to have a hard time letting go of a campaign. 

“He's got some legitimate concerns, but he will be well-served, I think, by looking forward,” Graham said. “Time will tell.”

Sources: Lombardo set to announce for governor

Undaunted by newly minted Republican Mayor John Lee’s announcement, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has made the decision to run for governor, sources confirmed Thursday.

Lombardo will formally announce next month and has hired a trio of high-profile GOP operatives, including a former political director for Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee.

The campaign team will be led by Ryan Erwin, a well-respected consultant who oversaw Cresent Hardy’s shocking upset of Rep. Steven Horsford in 2014 and helped Joe Heck win a seat in Congress (and almost secure a U.S. Senate seat). Erwin was involved in efforts to pass Marsy’s Law here and elsewhere and recently was retained by Caitlyn Jenner’s campaign to oust California Gov. Gavin Newsom. I don’t know of a more even-keeled, thoughtful and straight-shooting consultant who has been involved in Nevada politics.

Erwin will be joined by his former partner, Mike Slanker, who has been a consultant to the likes of Brian Sandoval and Dean Heller and is a media expert whose ads have been known to cut (and cut deeply), and Chris Carr, an ex-Trump and RNC operative who will oversee the grassroots/ground game and is as well-regarded as anyone I know across partisan and geographic lines.

It’s a formidable team enhanced by ex-Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who was interested in running for governor but has agreed to chair Lombardo’s campaign. Hutchison is a formidable fundraiser; his PAC helped the GOP pick up legislative seats last year.

I am reliably told that some gaming companies have informed Lombardo they will give him substantial support, although some will have to play both sides because Gov. Steve Sisolak has such power over their enterprises. It will be interesting to see, especially after a legislative session controlled by Democrats and one that has intermittently infuriated the Strip, whether any companies give only to Lombardo. (This would surprise me.)

The industry’s campaign contributions could well hinge on how the session ends and the resolution of a so-called right to return bill that is the Culinary union’s main objective and has caused a serious rift with and within the industry. 

Lombardo would have to be seen as a favorite in the primary with this kind of firepower and Lee's recent entry into the Republican party. The North Las Vegas mayor also has baggage, including a raft of votes as a Democratic legislator. But Lombardo’s two terms as sheriff notwithstanding, the sheriff’s ability to perform statewide and handle non-law enforcement issues remain uncertain. And he will have to deal with his own record as sheriff, too.

Filing does not open until next March, and I am still not persuaded that candidates who announce this early will actually file. And I am not convinced that Lee, who has floated more trial balloons than anyone in Nevada history before they lost ballast, will sign on the dotted line next year. At least, that is, for governor.

Sisolak is seen as vulnerable by the GOP here and nationally because of criticism he absorbed during the pandemic for health care protocols that were deleterious for the economy. But Democrats are banking on a rebounding economy to put some wind at Sisolak’s back, and a potential GOP primary is not optimal for Republicans. And who knows whether a Trumpian contender (who has not recently switched parties) might get in, making it even more interesting.

Lombardo’s decision, though, ensures this is going to be a very interesting year in Nevada politics, which, as one who has followed it for three and a half decades, almost goes without saying.

Cortez Masto, Lee top prior first-quarter fundraising tallies as congressional campaigns eye 2022 midterms

Congressional representatives across the state reported race-leading fundraising hauls this week, positioning each with an early money advantage more than a year in advance of next summer’s primary elections. 

Leading all fundraising was Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV), who reported more than $2.3 million in fundraising ahead of what is expected to be a competitive re-election bid. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who is not up for reelection until 2024, reported $341,794.

In the House, District 3 Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) led the state’s delegation with $607,407 raised through the first quarter; District 4’s Steven Horsford (D-NV) followed with $363,210; District 2’s Mark Amodei (R-NV) reported $77,749; and District 1’s Dina Titus (D-NV) reported $48,080.

With so much time left before the formal filing deadline for congressional elections next spring, the field of challengers in each district remains relatively small. Even so, two Republican challengers in the state’s two swing districts reported six-figure fundraising hauls, including Sam Peters in District 4 ($135,000) and April Becker in District 3 ($143,000).

Below are some additional campaign finance numbers for each candidate, broken down by district from greatest cumulative fundraising to least. 

Catherine Cortez Masto (D) — incumbent

Ahead of her first-ever bid for re-election as a U.S. senator and as Democrats prepare to defend their razor-thin margin in the Senate, Cortez Masto reported $2.3 million in fundraising, boosting her cash on hand by roughly 55 percent to nearly $4.7 million. 

A vast majority of that money, about $1.8 million, came from individual donors, including roughly $1.35 million in itemized contributions and $460,000 in small-dollar unitemized donations. Cortez Masto also raised an even $349,000 from PACs, more than $51,000 from political party committees and nearly $86,500 from other fundraising committee transfers.  

With a fundraising total orders of magnitude larger than any other candidate in Nevada through the first quarter, Cortez Masto also has by far the most individual donors of the entire field with thousands of itemized contributions reported, including several dozen contributions of the legal maximum. 

By law, individuals can contribute up to $2,900 per candidate per election (i.e. for the primary and for the general) in federal elections, while PACs and other committees can contribute up to $5,000 per election. Major donors will often contribute that maximum twice, once for the primary and again for the general, up front, giving candidates between $5,800 and $10,000.

Among the many donors who maxed out their contribution to Cortez Masto were a handful of Nevada regulars, including businessman and major Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck ($2,900 in the first quarter, $5,800 overall) and MGM Resorts International ($5,000).

With nearly $663,000 spent this quarter, no Nevada politician came close to Cortez Masto in outlays. Most of that money, $382,206, went to nine firms involved in fundraising operations, including mailers ($213,406) and online ($168,800). 

Jacky Rosen (D) — incumbent

With more than three years before she’ll face voters again, Rosen reported a comparatively modest $341,794 in contributions last quarter, but her campaign has more than $1.85 million in cash on hand. 

Of that money, most ($226,165) came from individual contributions, with the rest flowing largely from PACs ($14,000) and authorized committee transfers ($97,600).

Among the several dozen donors giving Rosen the legal maximum were Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun ($5,800) and his wife, Myra Greenspun ($5,800); Niraj Shah, CEO of the furniture retailer Wayfair ($2,900); and a leadership PAC linked to former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, the Seeking Justice PAC ($5,000).  

Most of the $137,000 spent by Rosen was for regular operating expenditures, though her campaign twice spent $5,000 for online advertising from New York-based firm Assemble the Agency. 

A district that covers much of the southern half of Clark County, including some of the Las Vegas metro’s wealthiest suburbs, District 3 has switched hands between the two major parties three times since its creation in 2002. 

For three cycles, that control has been maintained by Democrats, following a narrow win by Rosen in 2016, and subsequent victories by Lee in 2018 and 2020. Still, a narrow victory in the district by Donald Trump in 2016 and small voter registration gaps have marked District 3 as one of a few-dozen nationwide that may become key to deciding which party controls the House after the 2022 midterms.

Susie Lee (D) — incumbent

Frequently the top-fundraiser among Nevada’s House delegation, Susie Lee continued her streak last quarter with $607,407 in contributions. After Lee largely depleted her campaign reserves in a pricey bid to keep her seat last year, that first-quarter fundraising has left her campaign with just over $484,000 in cash on hand. 

Nearly all of that money — $493,070 — came from individual contributions, with the remaining $114,000 coming from big-money PAC contributions. 

Among those individual donors were several dozen contributing the $2,900 maximum. Those big money donors were largely local business leaders — including Cashman Equipment CEO MaryKaye Cashman, MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle and former MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren — though the group also included television showrunner and producer Shonda Rhimes.

Among PACs that contributed the $5,000 maximum were a mix of business interests (including PACs related to Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International), and unions (including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and SMART, the sheet metal and transportation workers union, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.) 

Lee reported spending nearly $146,000 last quarter, an amount second only to Cortez Masto among the delegation members. Most of that money went to campaign consulting and staffing costs, with the single largest chunk — $32,000 spread over five payments — going to Washington, D.C.-based digital consulting firm Break Something. 

April Becker (R)

After her unsuccessful run for the Legislature in 2020, attorney April Becker is challenging Susie Lee (D) for her seat in Congress. In the first quarter of 2021, Becker raised $143,444 mostly from individual contributors. 

Becker received $2,000 from PACs, such as the Stronger Nevada PAC and (although not officially endorsed by) the campaigns for fellow Republican politicians, former Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei. 

Several of her big individual contributors included family members; donations from individuals with the last name Becker totaled $29,500, nearly a fifth of the total contributions. Local business owners also contributed to Becker, including some car dealership owners: $5,000 from Gary Ackerman of Gaudin Motor Company; Cliff Findlay and Donna Findlay of Findlay Automotive each donated the maximum of $2,900, totaling $5,800; and Donald Forman of United Nissan Vegas gave $5,800.  

Co-owners of the Innovative Pain Care Center, Melissa and Daniel Burkhead, each gave $5,800 totaling $11,600. Other contributors included several medical professionals, real estate investors and attorneys.

In the first quarter, Becker kept most of the money collected, $131,460, reporting spending only $11,983 on more fundraising efforts. 

Mark Robertson (R)

Also hoping to challenge Susie Lee, Army veteran Mark Robertson raised $61,631 in his first time running for a political seat. The sum includes $7,451 he loaned his campaign.  

Although he collected less than half than Becker in the first quarter, retirees were large contributors to his campaign, some nearly reaching the $5,800 maximum for both the primary and general elections. 

Several local architects, engineers and construction contractors were also among the contributors, including $5,000 combined from Kenneth and Michelle Alber of Penta Building Group, $3,000 from Brock Krahenbuhl, a contractor for GTI Landscape and $3,000 from Wayne Horlacher of Horrock Engineers. 

Robertson reported spending $25,148, including $5,250 on campaign consulting, $3,138 on office supplies and $3,270 on video and print advertising production services. After the expenditures, Robertson is left with $44,034 cash on hand. 

A geographically massive district — larger than some states — that encompasses parts of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and much of the state’s central rural counties, District 4 has been held by Democrats for all but one cycle since its creation in 2011. That exception came in 2014, when Republican Cresent Hardy unseated then-freshman Democrat Steven Horsford in an upset. 

Horsford retook the seat in 2018, defeating Hardy in an open race after incumbent Democrat Ruben Kihuen declined to mount his own re-election bid amid a sexual harassment investigation. Horsford later won re-election in 2020, beating Republican Jim Marchant by 5 percentage points. 

Steven Horsford (D) — incumbent

With $363,209 in reported fundraising, Horsford boosted his campaign war chest by more than 50 percent last quarter, lifting his cash on hand to $757,142. 

That fundraising was driven mostly by $205,883 in individual contributions, though Horsford also brought in a much larger share of PAC contributions ($157,251) than his delegation counterparts.

Among Horsford’s single-largest contributors was Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun and his wife, Myra, who both contributed the $2,900 maximum for the primary and general elections, or $11,600 combined. 

Horsford’s biggest PAC contributions came from a mix of political committees linked to the Democratic Party, unions and corporations. That includes $10,000 from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC (of which Horsford is a member), $5,000 from the public employees union AFSCME and $5,000 from MGM Resorts International.   

A vast majority of the $102,000 spent by Horsford’s campaign last quarter went to operating costs, salaries and consultants, though — like his fellow incumbents — a sizable portion ($21,000) still flowed to a pair of fundraising and finance compliance consultants. 

Sam Peters (R)

After finishing second in last year’s Republican primary for District 4, veteran and local business owner Sam Peters led Republican fundraising efforts in the district this quarter. Peters’ campaign raised more than $135,000, which came entirely from individual contributions.

Those contributions were driven largely by retirees, as two-thirds of the 100 big-money contributions over $200 came from donors listing themselves as retired. Peters’ campaign was also boosted by a few maximum or near-maximum donations, including $5,800 from Frank Suryan Jr., CEO of Lyon Living, a residential development company based in Newport Beach, California, and $5,800 from Suryan’s spouse.

After spending a little more than $24,000, mostly on campaign consulting and fundraising services, Peters ended the quarter with nearly $115,000 in cash on hand, nearly double the amount he had at the end of the first quarter of 2021.

A district that includes Reno and much of rural Northern Nevada, District 2 has for two cycles been the only federal seat in Nevada still held by a Republican. The one-time seat of former Sen. Dean Heller and former Gov. Jim Gibbons, both Republicans, the seat has been held by incumbent Republican Mark Amodei since 2011, when he defeated Democrat Kate Marshall in a special election to replace the outgoing Heller. 

Mark Amodei (R) — incumbent

After Amodei spent close to a thousand dollars more than he raised through the first three months of 2021, his campaign war chest sits at $323,347 entering the second quarter.

His fundraising of nearly $78,000 came largely from big-money contributions totaling more than $50,000, including roughly 30 donations between $1,000 and $2,000. But Amodei was also boosted by several maximum or near-maximum donations from Margaret Cavin, owner of plumbing company J&J Mechanical in Reno ($5,600), and Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research ($5,800).

Amodei’s fundraising was also boosted by a few large contributions from political committees, including $5,000 donations from PACs affiliated with MGM Resorts International and New York Life Insurance, $3,500 from a PAC affiliated with the aerospace company Sierra Nevada Corporation and $2,500 from Barrick Gold, a mining company.

Amodei’s spending was distributed across a wide range of categories, as he spent $7,625 on radio advertising, $4,000 on campaign consulting, nearly $20,000 on fundraising consulting, $12,750 on accounting services and more than $7,500 on meals and entertainment for contributor relations — including nearly $700 paid to cigar companies and more than $2,000 spent at Trattoria Alberto, an Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Located in the urban center of Las Vegas, the deep blue District 1 has been held by incumbent Democratic Rep. Dina Titus since 2012. Titus won the seat after losing a previous re-election bid in nearby District 3 in 2010, which she had held for one term after a win over Republican Rep. Joe Heck in 2008.

Dina Titus (D) — incumbent

With no clear challengers in the district, Titus finished the first quarter with the least money raised of any Nevada incumbent — she received $48,080, which was $1.85 less than she raised through the same period last year.

More than half of those funds were given by four PACs that contributed a combined $25,000. The American Institute of Architects’ PAC, a PAC associated with the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC gave $5,000 each, a pro-Israel PAC called Desert Caucus donated $10,000.

Titus also received $14,280 from individuals, including a $1,000 contribution from former Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin and a maximum contribution of $5,800 from Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research.

After spending $37,000 in the quarter, Titus brought her cash on hand total to almost $340,000.

How Cortez Masto’s fundraising stacks up heading into likely competitive 2022 midterm election

The embers of the 2020 election are still burning, but many national political analysts already are looking to the 2022 midterms given the likely knife-edge margins in the U.S. Senate affecting how President-elect Joe Biden will be able to govern.

Nevada will again be front and center in the national political conversation, with Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s Senate seat expected to be one of the top targets for Republicans — Nevada is one of three Democrat-held seats in potentially competitive states (others including New Hampshire and Arizona) up for grabs in 2022.

Cortez Masto hasn’t officially announced her re-election bid and her campaign website is still largely focused on her 2016 race, but the nation's first-ever Latina U.S. Senator quietly filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Dec. 28 indicating that she plans to run for a second term in 2022.

If 2020 is any indication, candidates for competitive U.S. Senate seats are fundraising at higher levels than ever before, meaning candidates including Cortez Masto will have to start preparing for expensive campaigns earlier than ever. 

So after four years in office, what do Cortez Masto’s campaign fundraising totals look like heading into the next election cycle?

After ending the 2016 campaign with just $220,000 left in the bank, Cortez Masto has built a substantial cash reserve —  more than $2.3 million in cash on hand in her main campaign account, and about $209,000 in her leadership PAC, All for Country. 

But she and her future Republican opponent can be expected to raise much more than that — the 2018 U.S. Senate race between Jacky Rosen and Dean Heller saw the candidates raise a cumulative $41 million over the course of the campaign, not including spending from outside groups.

Since taking office in 2017, Cortez Masto has raised roughly $5.4 million in her primary campaign account, which includes $2.9 million raised between 2019 and 2020 and $2.5 million raised between 2017 and 2018. Those totals are below the average amount raised per cycle for U.S. senators, according to numbers tracked by The Center for Responsive Politics, but the average is likely thrown off by senators running for re-election.

Over that same period of time, she reported spending about $3.3 million combined, leaving her with the $2.3 million in cash on hand.

Cortez Masto’s cash on hand total is about a million dollars more than what former Sen. Heller, a Republican, had in his campaign account two years ahead of his ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign in the 2018 midterms.

Nevada’s candidate filing deadline is more than a year away, and no high-profile Republican candidates have yet publicly announced intentions of challenging Cortez Masto. Challenges in the state’s last two U.S. Senate races — Democrat Rosen in 2018, and Republican Joe Heck in 2016 — announced their respective candidacies about 18 months before Election Day.

Ultimately, fundraising levels for individual campaigns are just one portion of spending on elections, given the vast influence and spread of Super PACs and so-called “dark money” groups, which run thinly-veiled “issue” ads targeting candidates but are not required to disclose their donors.

In the 2016 Senate race, outside groups reported spending more than $91 million, largely on television and other advertisements supporting or opposing Cortez Masto and Heck. In 2018, outside groups spent $66 million in the state’s U.S. Senate race.

Cortez Masto instead spent much of her political energy on leading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the formal arm of Senate Democratic candidates. The organization, which Cortez Masto was tapped to lead in 2018, made headlines for substantial fundraising but ultimately saw a net gain of just one Senate seat after defeating incumbents in Arizona and Colorado while losing in Alabama (two Georgia Senate races will be decided in a Jan. 5 runoff election).

Serving as chair of the DSCC, which is part of the Senate Democratic leadership team, could help Cortez Masto raise funds for her 2022 race by introducing her to the Democrats’ national network of donors. 

But when asked whether she thinks it will help her in her re-election, Cortez Masto demurred and said she accepted the post because it was good for the state to have a seat at the leadership table.

“It gives me the opportunity to weigh in on behalf of the needs of Nevada with our leadership when we're when we are addressing policy needs or resources,” Cortez Masto said.

Serving on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax and trade policy, will also help her raise campaign dollars. Members of the panel are sought out by all sorts of industries seeking to affect the nation’s tax and trade agenda. Cortez Masto got the post after agreeing to be DSCC chair. Her appointment to the tax panel in 2018 came in addition to serving on the Senate Banking Committee, which also is a beacon for large national donors.“

Winning a seat on the senate tax-writing committee guarantees members that they will attract generous donations from banks, insurance companies, real estate agents, accountants, and securities and investment firms,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks congressional fundraising.

Updated at 2:02 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, to correct the amount of cash on hand that former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller had in his campaign account prior to the 2018 election cycle.

Biden’s victory, key House wins upheld Nevada’s blue wall while Republicans chipped away at it down ballot

As the sun dipped below the horizon, closing out the seventh to last day before the election, Kamala Harris had a message for the supporters who had gathered on socially distant red, white and blue picnic blankets at an East Las Vegas park to hear her speak.

“You all are going to decide who is going to be the next president of the United States. You will decide,” the Democratic vice-presidential nominee told the crowd, to hollers and applause. “A path to the White House runs right through this field.”

President Donald Trump, speaking at a rally a day later just over the state line in Bullhead City, Arizona, was equally as bullish on his chances in Nevada.

“Six days from now, we are going to win Arizona, we are going to win Nevada, and we are going to win four more years in our great White House,” Trump told the crowd of thousands who had gathered.

It wasn’t just talk. Nevada, of course, mattered to both campaigns this election cycle. It’s why the Trump campaign focused on building out its Nevada operation long before there was even a Democratic presidential nominee. It’s why Joe Biden’s campaign doubled down on its voter outreach this summer when it felt like the contest was narrowing.

By the time the night of the election rolled around, though, it seemed as if, in many ways, Nevada’s importance had been written off. Polls had Biden several points ahead. The prognosticators anticipated Nevada would lean blue. Both Biden and Trump spent their final days in the battleground states that were ground zero for the 2016 election — states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

When results started rolling in on election night in Nevada, Biden had a sizable, if not overwhelming, 3 to 4 percentage point lead at first, as many had predicted. But by early Wednesday morning, as the votes continued to be tallied, Biden’s lead over Trump had shrunk to 0.6 percentage points, or 7,647 votes.

Suddenly, what had seemed like a sure bet for Democrats in Nevada earlier in the evening, wasn’t anymore, and the Silver State was thrust into the national spotlight as the presidential race here remained too close to call.

Of course, it wasn’t really. Over the span of several days, Biden managed to steadily grow his lead as outstanding mail ballots, most of which were in Clark County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, continued to be counted, as anticipated.

But to the rest of the country, which remained on pins and needles as the presidential race nationally also remained too close to call as votes continued to be counted in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, Nevada’s vote counting seemed impossibly slow, inspiring countless memes across social media.

Finally, four days later, the race in Nevada was officially called for Biden, just about half an hour after some media outlets called the entire race for the former vice president. Though a small number of ballots still remain to be tallied, Biden’s lead in Nevada stands at 2.39 percentage points, or 33,596 votes, as of Saturday.

From the outside looking in, Biden’s victory in Nevada may seem predictable because Nevada looks like a blue state. Its governor is a Democrat, both of its U.S. senators are Democrats, three out of four of its House members are Democrats and both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. But neither Republicans nor Democrats here have been willing to concede that Nevada is, in fact, a blue state.

For Democrats, those victories have all come hard fought, some won by the skin of their teeth. In 2016, Catherine Cortez Masto won her U.S. Senate race and Hillary Clinton won the presidential race both by 2.4 percentage points. Though margins of victory widened two years later with Steve Sisolak’s 4.1 percentage point victory in the gubernatorial race and Jacky Rosen’s 5 point victory in the U.S. Senate, Democrats knew that 2020 would look different.

Republicans knew this too. They knew that Trump voters who didn’t turn out to vote in 2018 would show up this year to vote for the president, and they hoped those voters could also be persuaded to vote Republican all the way down the ticket. They also hoped to persuade moderates that overwhelming Democratic control in Carson City wasn’t a good thing.

On that front, Republicans appear to have succeeded. While Democrats celebrated their win at the top of the ticket, they actually lost ground down the ballot in the Legislature. Three Assembly seats that Democrats had picked up in 2018 returned to Republican hands, meaning that Democrats no longer have a supermajority in that chamber, and they lost a key state Senate seat as well, narrowing their majority.

And while Democrats held onto two competitive congressional seats, their victories were narrower than they were two years ago.

Still, Democrats look at the results of this election and see a blue wall. Even with their losses in the Legislature, they still hold majorities in both chambers. To them, the election once again demonstrates that ensuring Nevada votes blue takes work, and a lot of it.

“It should be crystal clear now that Biden would not have won Nevada but for a well-funded ground game ... We win in Nevada because we leave it all on the field — every cycle,” Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Democratic operative in the state responsible for building the Reid machine, said in an email. “We fund communications, we fund mail, we fund field —  we knock doors to push our voters to vote.”

Republicans, however, are hopeful in the wake of this election. They see the narrower margins as a sign of hope for the 2022 election. They also look at specific victories, such as the fact that Heidi Gansert, a Republican, was re-elected to her Washoe County state Senate seat even as the county swung decidedly for Biden, and that educator Carrie Buck flipped a state Senate district that has two Democratic Assembly seats nested beneath it as glimmers of hope for the future of their party — that the state might still be more independent than it has in recent years appeared to be.

"The biggest surprise to me in this election was the historic DNA of Nevada — being independent and looking at the person before the party — reappeared,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in Nevada. “The idea that there were ticket-splitters was as refreshing as it was surprising."

Voters line up to cast their ballots at West Sahara Library on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

How Biden won Nevada

Over the summer, some Democrats fretted that the presidential race in Nevada might be closer than anticipated. The coronavirus pandemic had forced them to toss their usual playbook out the window and, as the Trump campaign returned to knocking doors in person in June, their campaign remained virtual, hindering, in the eyes of some, their ability to effectively connect with voters.

Of course, Democrats had been hosting Zoom events, phone banks and text message drives, utilizing the framework of “relational organizing,” or the principle of having supporters tap into their personal networks to turn voters out to the polls. But the face-to-face connection was missing.

Enter the Culinary Union.

The politically powerful labor union, which represents 60,000 hotel workers across the state, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for turning the tides in favor of Democrats in close elections, most notably in Harry Reid’s 2010 U.S. Senate race. But its membership was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic: Ninety-eight percent of the union’s members were furloughed this spring, and only about half are back to work.

The union’s finances were hit hard, too. It had no money for a political operation. So, for the first time, they set up a super PAC, Take Back 2020, asked for help, and it came, from the Carpenters Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Operating Engineers, the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and more, D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, said.

“If it had not been for other unions, individuals, organizations contributing to us, we never could have done this — ever, ever ever,” Taylor said.

The super PAC raised money nationally for Unite Here’s efforts, which included political operations in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida. But Taylor said the union raised more than $10 million for its Nevada operation alone, which deployed 500 canvassers in the field who knocked 500,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno and talked to 130,000 voters, including more than 42,000 eligible voters who did not participate in the election four years ago. 

“We didn’t have the money,” Taylor said. “Frankly, even if we had had the money, we still probably needed to set up a PAC. Just here in Nevada, Trump’s campaign was much more robust in 2020 than it was in 2016.”

Plus, there was an extra added benefit: The political operation also helped out-of-work union members put food on the table.

“Up in Reno we had folks come in from our locals in California who were laid off too and other locals besides Las Vegas,” Taylor said. “In Las Vegas a lot of folks were laid off workers who got to earn some money and change the country.”

It represented the Culinary Union’s largest — and earliest — political effort to date. When the union started talking to voters at the doors on Aug. 1, it was the only Democratic-aligned organization in the field. For Our Future, a super PAC focused on grassroots Democratic turnout, launched an in-person canvassing operation on Oct. 1, eventually knocking on 150,000 doors, in addition to making 650,000 calls and sending over a million text messages. 

Other organizations focused primarily on virtual or non-face-to-face outreach. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, made nearly 100,000 calls and sent more than 80,000 text messages to Latinos in Nevada on Election Day, while One APIA Nevada dropped literature in five Asian languages at 30,000 doors, in addition to making 180,000 phone calls and sending 6,000 text messages.

The Biden campaign, meanwhile, engaged in a mostly virtual campaign until the final three weeks, when it started in-person door knocking as well.

Combined, Democrats report knocking on more than 1.3 million doors across Nevada this election cycle, while the Trump campaign reported knocking more than 1.1 million.

"It is one thing to get the green light to go knock doors. It’s another to move an entire organization to really take on that challenge and do it in a way that’s safe,” said Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada State Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign director. “In 21 days, really, we were able to put together a massive door-knocking operation and lit-dropping operation across multiple counties to talk to voters that we didn’t have phone numbers for, that we hadn’t reached in the first two months of the campaign, including young people and people of color."

The Culinary Union, for its part, attributes its decision to knock doors so early to the conversations that it had with epidemiologists and industrial hygienists around workplace health and safety as it pushed for employee protection legislation in Carson City over the summer. Using that knowledge, union leaders established health and safety protocols canvassers had to adhere to while out in the field, including wearing masks, requiring those they spoke with to wear masks, and practicing social distancing.

 “We said if not us, who? There was no other who,” Taylor said. “We did what we do without a lot of bells and whistles and just did the work.”

The Culinary Union engaged in other kinds of voter outreach, too, sending emails and texts to 60,000 members, mailing 5.6 million mail pieces, making 2 million personal calls and 240,000 automated calls and running digital persuasion ads that racked up 11.6 million views — the kind of outreach that other organizations engaged in as well. 

But what set the union apart was the size and scope of its door-knocking operation. Taylor said that where the union’s typical contact rate at the door is usually 7 percent, it was more like 30 percent this year.

“I think that’s been proven over and over and over, and we know that it’s a three-legged stool to move folks,” Taylor said. “One, you have to have the TV stuff, two, you have to have the phone bank and text but, three, it’s the actual conversations with folks.”

Taylor, for his part, does not think Biden would have won Nevada without the Culinary Union.

“I know who we turned out and that was the difference in Washoe and Clark,” Taylor said. “I don’t think Joe Biden would’ve won and I don’t think a lot of Democrats would have won.”

Other Democrats in the state painted the election as a team effort, but acknowledged the decisive role that the union played not just in Biden’s victory but in key down ballot races as well, including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s tight re-election campaign in Senate District 6.

"If Culinary was not out there in a meaningful way starting in August, I think this race would’ve been a lot closer,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “I think we would’ve eked it out, but we may have lost Nicole’s seat and we would’ve probably lost a couple more Assembly seats."

Democrats believe that Nevada could have easily become the next Wisconsin or Michigan from 2016 if not for the investments in the Culinary Union, For Our Future and other organizations on the independent expenditure side of the campaign, in addition to the Biden campaign’s decision to put canvassers back on doors at the end of the race.

The Biden campaign acknowledges they wouldn’t have been able to win in Nevada if not for the help of those other Democratic-aligned organizations.

"You have to remember that it’s a team effort and that there is institutional knowledge and organizations, like the NV Dems, like the Culinary Union, have been building relationships with voters for many cycles,” said Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director in Nevada.

As far as the tight margin of victory in the presidential race in the state, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Democratic operatives who know Nevada well.

"We knew from very early on that this was going to be a close race. Nevada is a battleground state,” said state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a senior advisor on Biden’s Nevada team. “The margins haven’t been 5 to 10 point margins, they are 2 to 5 point margins, which means every vote really matters."

A group celebrates president elect Joe Biden's victory on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Around 50 people gathered at the Commercial Center in Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Republican gains down the ballot

While Democrats celebrate their success at the top of the ticket, it is Republicans who are finding reasons to be hopeful further down the ballot, including in the four legislative seats that Republicans were able to wrest from Democrats.

To some, it feels like a reset back to the way things were four years ago, before Democrats extended their reach in the last election. The only difference between the makeup in the Assembly this year is that Republicans picked up District 31, giving them one more seat than they had in 2016. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans have the same split they did in 2016; they have just since swapped control of Senate Districts 5 and 9.

“From the Assembly Republican perspective, we’re happy where we’re at,” said Eric Roberts, executive director of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “We had four seats we were looking at picking up, and we got three of those.”

Perhaps the biggest upset, though, was Republican Carrie Buck’s victory over Democrat Kristee Watson in Senate District 5. Buck had run for the seat four years ago against state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, the term-limited incumbent, and lost by 0.9 percentage points. 

This year, Buck won by 0.5 percentage points, even as the two Assembly districts nested beneath the seat swung for Democrats. Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen won her re-election bid in Assembly District 29 by 2.5 percentage points, while newcomer Elaine Marzola won her election in Assembly District 21 by 3.9 percentage points.

“We were fortunate Carrie Buck decided to run again. She ran four years earlier, and it was a close election,” said Greg Bailor, executive director of the Senate Republican Caucus. “Carrie has deep roots in that district being an educator and she really campaigned hard and was able to talk to Democrats and nonpartisans in a way that helped gain that support in the district.”

In many ways, the Republican pickups in the Legislature mirror what happened at the national level, where Democrats lost several key House races to Republicans that they had picked up two years ago.

“Democrats won too much in 2018, if you will. They got farther out than they probably should’ve because there was so much energy on the Democratic side,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “In 2020, you didn’t see that. They lost ground or held their own.”

Democrats, for their part, aren’t entirely shocked they weren’t able to replicate their successes from 2018, though the losses still sting. Jones said that, in looking at the data, it is “abundantly clear” that nonpartisans in Clark County did not break for Democrats.

“We're up in Clark County by the amount of Democrats that voted essentially, which means nonpartisans were a wash or we lost a few,” Jones said.

Republicans are also celebrating their successes in Washoe County, including in Senate District 15, where Gansert was able to fend off a challenge from a newcomer Democrat, Wendy Jauregui-Jackins. Gansert won by 3.6 percentage points when Biden won the county by 4.5 percentage points.

“Washoe County as a whole has seen growth and a lot of that growth has come from new constituents and voters that are a little bit more moderate,” Bailor said. “Senator Gansert does have a track record in the community and with her constituents, but she had to reintroduce herself to voters.”

Still, Gansert’s victory this year was narrower than her 11 percentage point victory in 2016, which has some Republicans worried about their prospects down the ballot there moving forward. 

“The trend in Washoe is concerning,” Roberts said. “As a Republican, we have to look at that and say, what’s happening here?” 

There is also one down-ticket race that political operatives believe was likely specifically affected by the pandemic. Assemblyman Skip Daly, a Democrat, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for his relentless doorknocking that has allowed him to represent a Republican-leaning district for eight of the last 10 years. But, because of the pandemic, he didn’t door-knock this cycle, and former Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, a Republican, bested Daly by 3.5 percentage points in their fourth head to head in Assembly District 31.

“It’s as close as you can get to a control group of a comparative analysis. Same candidate, same campaign management, it’s the same basic everything from 2018 to 2020,” said Riley Sutton, a Democratic consultant in Washoe County who managed Daly’s race. “The only difference is who is at the top of the ticket and if we knocked doors or we didn’t. Skip didn’t knock doors.”

In the two competitive congressional districts, Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford both faced tighter contests this year than they did in 2018. Lee won by 3 percentage points this year, compared the 9.1 point margin she won by two years ago, while Horsford won by 4.9 points after winning by 8.2 points in 2018.

Republicans attribute the closeness both in the presidential race and down ballot elections, in part, to the decreased Democratic field operation this cycle.

“There still wasn’t the Democrat presence on the doors that I had seen in the past,” Roberts said. “Even when there was, it almost had more of a feel of a lit drop. I didn’t see any Democratic operatives out knocking doors. In past cycles I’ve always seen that.”

But they also point to the successes of an enhanced field operation that they say was boosted by the fact that Chris Carr, a Republican operative with deep ties to Nevada, was political director for the Trump Victory organization this cycle. They also highlight that the Republican operation in Nevada has now existed continuously for four years instead of getting reset cycle after cycle.

“I would say this was the largest field program we’ve had,” Bailor said. “Prior to 2020, 2018 was the largest, and 2016 was the largest before that. We’ve continued to build on that.”

The Trump campaign declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing legal fights. Though it has yet to file a new legal challenge in court since the election, the outcome of any legal battle, even if favorable for the Trump campaign, is unlikely to change the results of the presidential election in Nevada because of Biden’s relatively wide margin of victory in the state. Any legal action could, however, potentially affect close down ballot races.

Trump aside, Republicans believe they’re well-situated headed into the 2022 election, where there will be a competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial election in Nevada.

"Republicans won some close races and Democrats won some close races. I think both sides did a really good job and ran good campaigns,” Ernaut said. “The biggest difference was in the last four cycles the Republicans really hadn’t. They really didn’t have much of a ground game and this time they did — and had a good one."

Jan Moody during the GOP watch party at the South Point Hotel on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Voter turnout

The biggest puzzle that remains about the election in Nevada isn’t why Biden won or why Republicans succeeded down ballot: It’s why even more voters didn’t turn out to the polls in such a high-interest election and with voting easier than ever before with mail ballots sent to every active registered voter this cycle.

That’s not to say that turnout isn’t significantly up: Turnout in Clark County was about 80 percent this cycle, after subtracting about 75,000 inactive voters who should have been removed from the county’s voter rolls, about 5 percent higher than it was in 2016. Washoe County’s voter turnout was about 83 percent this year, up from 80 percent four years ago, while statewide turnout was about 81 percent, up from 77 percent in the last presidential election.

While those numbers are high, they’re not as high as perhaps some had expected.

“When we came out of the blocks this time with the mail and early voting and numbers were coming in, there was a question of, ‘Could we get to 90 percent turnout?'” Roberts said. “Instead, I think we just saw a pretty major shift in how people vote.”

Democrats had predicted a turnout of about 1.4 million based on vote enthusiasm and turnout in past presidential cycles, which ended up being correct with just a little more than 1.4 million ballots cast in the election. 

“Given the challenges Nevada faced in terms of the economic downturn and the pandemic, I don't think it's surprising that we didn't exceed that expectation,” Lambe said.

Damore, the political science professor at UNLV, additionally noted that the best predictors of turnout are residential stability, age and education, factors that don't bode particularly well for high turnout in Nevada.

“It’s just part of our culture,” Damore said. “This isn’t a civic engagement state.”

Another possible reason that the voter turnout percentage wasn’t even higher this year is because there were simply more registered voters who weren’t actually interested in participating in the election, since, for the first time this year, Nevada offered automatic voter registration at the DMV. About 57.4 percent of the voting age eligible population cast ballots in Nevada in 2016, according to the United States Election Project, compared to about 65.3 percent in 2020.

As far as why more people didn’t participate on Election Day, Roberts speculates that there just weren’t that many people left who wanted to vote.

“I think people were fearful of the long lines they saw in the primary, which wasn’t an apples to apples comparison,” Roberts said. “I think people prepared for that.”

And while mail ballots split essentially two to one in favor of Democrats this election cycle — largely the result of Democrats encouraging voters to take advantage of mail voting while Trump cast doubt on the integrity of the process — political observers say there’s no reason it needs to be that way in elections moving forward. 

"Everybody has the same opportunity to vote, whether it’s mail ballot or traditional absentee or early voting or Election Day. It shouldn’t favor any party. It’s a matter of your strategy, your organization,” Ernaut said. “If one party did better than another in those areas, it’s either because they worked harder or had a better strategy."

The other surprise was the fact that roughly an equal number of Republicans and Democrats took advantage of the state’s new same-day voter registration law, which was passed during the 2019 legislative session. The policy was expected to offer a boost to Democrats, and was staunchly opposed by Republicans, though in the end 22,701 Democrats and 22,886 Republicans took advantage of the same-day registration process this year.

"Whether or not this cycle proves that those who utilize same day weren’t necessarily our voters, I think in the long term same-day registration benefits democracy by expanding turnout,” Jones said.

A voter returns his ballot card in Sun City Summerlin on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Looking forward

For those who know Nevada well, the close election results this year don’t come as a surprise. Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Washoe County, recalled working on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign when he won Nevada by only 21,500 votes, or 2.6 percentage points, over John Kerry.

“It’s not new that these races continue to be close because Nevada still, I think, is fairly evenly divided despite some of the registration differences,” Ferraro said.

Democrats, however, are still considering this year largely a blue wall year.

“There was no blue wave in 2020 anywhere — in fact, quite the opposite,” Lambe said. “Nevada became part of the Blue Wall that secured a Democratic presidential win against increased turnout and enthusiasm for Trump.”

All the same, Republicans are optimistic.

“I think it was going to be a big lift to completely flip the state,” Bailor said. “So to then see the Nevada Legislature hold Republican seats and pick up seats, I would have to say in Carson City it’s not a wave but we definitely got some Republicans down ticket.”

If this election cycle proved anything, though, it’s that it’s not enough for Republican running statewide to run up the ballot count in the state’s ruby red rural counties if they continue to lose by a wide margin in Clark County and a still sizable margin in Washoe County, as they did in the presidential election this year.

The challenge for Republicans, then, moving forward is to somehow translate those down ballot wins into statewide victories. If they can’t find a way to win across the state, the blue wall will continue.

“The question is where their next statewide candidate is coming from,” Damore said. “They’re going to be in that problem of the primaries, the Dean Heller dance that fell flat in 2018. What’s going to happen in 2022? Are you going to put more hardcore Trump folks in statewide races with Catherine Cortez Masto? That’s probably not going to go well.”

As blue as Nevada has been in recent elections, though, this election served as a reminder to still expect the unexpected.

"Nevada works better when it works like this, when it’s not so partisan and not so polarized,” Ernaut said. “Everyone, regardless of whether their candidate won or lost, should feel a lot better about this election than they have about any of the last few."

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the May Museum at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Democrats in 2nd District face long odds even as culture shifts, campaigns get more sophisticated

Wearing a bright yellow sweater in the same hue as her campaign signs, a masked Patricia Ackerman stood near a Biden-Harris campaign bus emblazoned with the words “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” not far from the Capitol building in Carson City on a recent Monday.

But the small group that turned out to pick up hand sanitizer and Biden-Harris yard signs and meet candidates like Ackerman was a far cry from a gathering a day earlier. That’s when her Republican opponent for the 2nd Congressional District, Rep. Mark Amodei, took the stage at the Carson City airport a few miles away and spoke to some 13,000 people packed together to see President Donald Trump for a freewheeling, 80-minute speech. 

While her platforms have been much smaller, Ackerman said she still feels a path to victory in a Northern Nevada congressional district that a Democrat has never won in its 40 years of existence and where Republicans hold an 11-point registration advantage.

“This year can’t be compared to the other years. This is new territory,” she said in an interview as the bus idled in the background. “It's actually getting a little overwhelming because we're feeling so much grassroots fire and energy that is forming into this campaign.”

Democratic congressional candidate Patricia Ackerman greets voters during a stop of a Biden-Harris campaign bus tour in Carson City on Oct. 19, 2020. Photo by Michelle Rindels

What’s heartening, she said, is the small-dollar donors who are giving $3, $5, $10. Those contributions — given largely through the Democratic online fundraising platform ActBlue — have driven a comparatively large campaign war chest for Ackerman’s 2020 run, amounting cumulatively to more than $391,000 as of the last federal filing period on Oct. 23.

It’s an amount that far outstrips other Democratic bids in the last two cycles, when Democrats in the district lost their races while their counterparts in the state’s more competitive races bested Republicans. 

Even Amodei noted that this campaign has had a different feel to it. ActBlue has played a major role in helping Ackerman increase fundraising from small donors. He said that this campaign has also been different because of the tone of the race, with more attacks on his record.

“This has clearly been the most intense one,” he said.

In 2018, when Democrats nationwide capitalized on a blue wave that ultimately flipped 41 Republican House seats, Amodei challenger Clint Koble raised less than $162,000 through the entire cycle. Two years earlier, Democratic hopeful Chip Evans banked just under $209,000 in a year that saw Democrats flip two competitive Southern Nevada House seats, Districts 3 and 4, as well as secure victory in an open race for the U.S. Senate and for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 

Koble and Evans ultimately lost their challenges to Amodei by margins of 16.5 and 21.4 percentage points, respectively. 

But observers who came to meet the bus think Ackerman’s run feels different.

“She’s got more money and more organization. That’s it,” said Michael Greedy, chair of the Carson City Democrats. 

Entering the last month of the election with roughly $100,000 cash on hand, federal filings show Ackerman has funneled a vast majority of that money into advertising. In the first two weeks of October alone, she reported spending roughly $70,700 on advertising and printing services, or about three-quarters of the $92,795 she spent overall through that period. 

It also marked the first such filing period in which Ackerman significantly outspent Amodei, who spent just $42,000 over the same two weeks. Amodei entered 2020 with more than $333,000 in his campaign’s coffers and, up until the third quarter of 2020, had largely outraised and outspent any potential rivals. 

Still, these filings do not capture additional spending by Amodei in the last few weeks of the campaign, which include a likely pricey TV spot placed after the last televised presidential debate. Amodei entered the last days of the campaign with a massive cash advantage and a war chest 10 times the size of Ackerman’s — $436,000 to just $43,500, respectively. 

Outside observers have, across the board, forecasted a clear Republican edge in District 2. The Cook Political Report, FiveThirtyEight and the University of Virginia Center for Politics have rated the district as “Solid R.”

And while forecasting final results through early-vote data remains difficult, partisan breakdowns of ballots returned so far in Washoe County — key to any potential Ackerman’s victory — show a Democratic lead of fewer than 2,400 votes as of Friday morning. It’s a number that has narrowed over the last two weeks as Republican in-person votes have gradually whittled at mailed-in Democratic votes, and it may narrow further depending on Election Day turnout. 

Congressman Mark Amodei delivers remarks before Vice President Mike Pence during a campaign stop at the Reno/Tahoe International Airport on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent)

The issues

A former stage actor and designer of indoor landscapes who now lives in Minden, Ackerman has an eclectic list of interests on her website, including horseback riding, high altitude climbing and organic gardening. While her proud proclamation that she’s in a two-Prius household and hewing to a plant-based diet may put her at odds with some in the deep-red, ranch-heavy rurals, she said she’s adept at finding common ground.

“We feel a path to victory,” she said. “Relationship-building comes easier to me I think than the average person. Again, that's just my nature. I understand teamwork. I'm a retired climber. So as a high altitude climber you know what it's like to rely on someone, otherwise you can lose your life. So I bring those skills and that ability to be able to work together toward that goal.”

After running an unsuccessful campaign for Assembly in a deeply Republican rural district in 2018, Ackerman’s campaign has been laser-focused on the issue of health care. She lost her own mother because of lack of access to adequate health care in rural Nevada; Ackerman was unable to find a doctor who would take a Medicare patient in a timely fashion, and her mother died a day before her scheduled appointment.

“Just like when Medicare and Social Security were first introduced, there's bugs that have to be worked out. And let's continue to build on that,” she said about the Affordable Care Act.

Amodei, a lawyer by trade who grew up in Carson City and is a former state legislator, has held the seat since 2011 and is well-known in the district. While he has taken moderate stances on some issues, including calling for a pathway to legal status for people living in the country illegally and opposing a project to store waste at Yucca Mountain, he voted with Republican Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy 94 percent of the time in his current term.

“Mark had voted repeatedly to destroy the ACA. And the ACA is the only national law that actually protects pre existing conditions,” Ackerman said. “Currently, there has been no other option put on the table and that's scary if you're going to go and repeal something without something to protect people, that's unconscionable.”

In an interview this week, Amodei defended his votes on the Affordable Care Act, and he said his position has been distorted. Amodei said he would like to keep some aspects of the bill in place, including protections for pre-existing conditions.  

“I think we ought to keep the good stuff in the ACA,” he said. “And there’s plenty of other work to be done and we ought to be doing it instead of sitting there trying to rat each other out and out scream each other on talking points on health care.”

Congressional candidate Patricia Ackerman at Washoe Democratic Party headquarters in Reno on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Winning the district

The district, which was created after the 1980 census and includes Reno and rural counties across northeastern Nevada, has a partisan lean toward Republicans of about seven percentage points greater than the nation as a whole, according to the Cook Political Report. 

But buried within the district-wide view is a more nuanced picture, and Democratic consultants see a potential, albeit longshot, path to victory. Most of the Democrats who have won in the district have lost by more than 15 percentage points. But there have been some exceptions. 

The closest a Democrat has ever come to winning was in 2006, when Jill Derby, a regent in the Nevada System of Higher Education, lost to then-Secretary of State Dean Heller by 5.4 points. And since then, the electorate in Washoe County, the most populous area of the district, has changed in a way that could give Democrats more of a chance. 

In 2008, Democrats began to close a gap in voter registration in Washoe County. Although Republicans still lead in voter registration, the two parties are virtually neck-and-neck. At the same time, the share of independents in Washoe County has grown significantly. To win the district, Ackerman would likely need to win by a large margin in Washoe County — which has about two-thirds of the voters in the district — to offset the significant registration advantage that Republicans have in rural Nevada. 

But Washoe County is hard to predict with voters shifting their political allegiances, depending on specific candidates, and often splitting their tickets in presidential election years. In recent years, even when Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates have lost in Washoe County, Republicans have not only held onto the congressional seat, but have won countywide. 

In 2008, for example, then-Sen. Barack Obama won Washoe County by more than 20,000 votes. Derby, who ran again for the congressional seat that year, lost Washoe County by about 2,000 votes. Similarly, in 2016, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won Washoe County by about 3,000 votes, Amodei’s opponent Chip Evans lost the county by about 17,000 votes

And in a media landscape often consumed with partisan battles, especially in the race for the White House, Amodei has highlighted the fact that he’s a member of the Bipartisan Working Group, which has an equal number of Democratic and Republican members of the House. 

While Amodei has continued to reach out to the Republican base by appearing at events like the Trump rally, he said he has run a campaign meant to appeal to a wide swath of voters. While his social media activity is sparse, he does a weekly “Minute with Mark” radio segment, which also includes versions in Spanish, and publishes an e-newsletter that captures his folksy snark.

“I would never dream of running a campaign that says, ‘It’s a Republican district and I’m a Republican,’” Amodei said. “That, quite frankly, is every bit as shallow of what I’ve been critical of the campaign process in general on.” 

Rep. Mark Amodei at a rally headlined by President Donald Trump at the Carson City Airport in Carson City on Oct. 18, 2020. (Isaac Hoops/The Nevada Independent)

Kimi Cole, a rural liaison and coordinator for the Ackerman campaign, said that the campaign has worked to use a variety of channels to connect with voters during the pandemic, including in outlying areas. 

In the past, campaigns were more focused on “retail politics;” this time, Ackerman’s Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of video testimonials from Democratic veterans calling for improvements to the VA and Ackerman herself promising to be a representative for the district who is “actually going to work for a change.”

“There is a social media strategy this time,” Cole said. 

Catherine Byrne, the state controller, said she thinks Ackerman may have built up something of a base and name recognition from running last cycle for a Douglas County Assembly seat held by Jim Wheeler. But she said she thinks sexism and anti-California sentiment in rural areas is working against Ackerman, who previously lived in California.

Like others observing the race, she thinks narrowing the gap would be a victory in and of itself. It’s a philosophy taken by Deborah Chang, the Democratic candidate who is following in Ackerman’s footsteps by running a long-shot bid this cycle for Wheeler’s seat, even though Wheeler got twice as many votes as Ackerman in 2018.

“There's still a message to be offered and also some points to be made that some of the more conservative policies actually don't benefit the people,” Chang said. “I think it's going to take some time for more progressive ideas to be considered. And it might take a couple of election cycles, or maybe even a couple generations.”