After pouring everything into a hard-fought Democratic primary against fellow Clark County commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, Steve Sisolak had to spend much of the summer regrouping and reloading.
Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, on the other hand, had fully stocked campaign coffers after a blowout victory in the primary. The day after that June election, his team went up with its first ad painting Sisolak as a corrupt politician wrapped up in pay-to-play deals during his time as a county commissioner.
But in spite of Laxalt’s head start on the airwaves, and in spite of warnings that commissioners like Sisolak are unelectable because they deal daily in a world of contracts and campaign donations that can look unseemly, Sisolak defeated Laxalt by four points, or almost 40,000 votes. How?
Sisolak’s team credits his win to sticking to three key themes — health care, jobs and education — consistently for more than a year.
“That steady message discipline showed independent voters across the state that Steve was going to be a steady hand at the tiller … and focused on things that matter to working Nevadans and independent voters,” said Campaign Manager Chris Sloan.
While Sisolak’s campaign went dark on TV for weeks, the Democratic Governors Association stepped in to fill that gap with a campaign arguing Laxalt would take Nevada backwards on those issues — including by repealing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Commerce Tax and rolling back the expansion of Medicaid. The DGA believes that helped Sisolak transcend his party label and his place on the Democratic spectrum.
“I think that it really came down to not being about progressive, moderate, liberal. It was just about the state moving forward,” said Corey Platt, the DGA’s political director.
Laxalt softened on those issues as the campaign carried on. He noted that it would be difficult to repeal the Commerce Tax because Democrats had a lock on both chambers of the Legislature. He argued that he would preserve protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and that he would not roll back Medicaid. And he promised to put $500 million of new money into education.
But Sisolak’s campaign believes the pivot came too late. From Labor Day onward, Sloan said, their internal polling showed them within the margin of error.
Laxalt’s campaign and allies continued with ads alleging corruption, dubbing the commissioner “Shady Steve.” Sisolak’s team says the initial attacks had some effect, but they believe they didn’t touch voters personally enough.
“They were just attacking character without a clear line on how it affects voters, and I think that was a miscalculation on their part,” said spokeswoman Christina Amestoy.
His team also thinks that ads suggesting Sisolak would raise property taxes did not cut deeply enough in light of his record as a self-described fiscal conservative who made cuts to the county budget during the recession.
“I think telling that story and showing that Steve is somebody who was very thoughtful and very budget-oriented, means that those attacks, while they break through to some people, were sort of grazing shots, if you will, that didn’t hit home with enough people because Steve has this reputation and record of doing exactly what voters want from an elected official,” Sloan said.
In a focus group they conducted, Sisolak’s team said, one particularly effective message for Republican and independent voters was that popular moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval had opted not to endorse Laxalt. UNLV political science professor David Damore said Laxalt’s departure from the generally successful “Sandoval model” — including Laxalt’s criticism of the Commerce Tax and his frequent intervention as attorney general on hot-button issues such as abortion — was puzzling.
“When you have the Republican candidate treating the outgoing Republican more harshly than the Democratic candidate, you might want to scratch your head on that one,” he said. “That was sort of the stunning part because the secret to Sandoval’s success was he focused on things people cared about and he let the divisive social issues be ignored.”
Platt said Sisolak’s victory came down to his ability to show himself as authentic and memorable on a human level. He pointed to the ads in which Sisolak and his two adult daughters talked directly to the camera about Sisolak’s experience as single dad — that was a unique storyline that helped distinguish him from “cookie-cutter” candidates, Platt said.
Laxalt, on the other hand, was pictured jogging or spending time with his youthful family but almost never spoke in his own ads. His wife Jaime, mother Michelle and father-in-law, or a narrator, were the primary voices in his TV commercials.
“I don’t know how much that allows voters to get to know a candidate,” said Michelle White, director of the group For Our Future, which supported Sisolak. “In a large scale race you can’t go door to door as a candidate when you’re running statewide. And so that’s your opportunity to really get yourself out there. And while it’s always great to have those third-party validators, I think it’s important for voters to see the actual candidate, get to know them.”
Sisolak, who is known to give out business cards with his cell phone number on them and answer when people call, was also much more likely to grant interviews.
“If you’re not talking to the press, you’re not talking to voters so you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to get your message across,” said Barb Solish, a top Sisolak aide. “If you’re unwilling to do that, then you’re losing that opportunity.”
His team said the strategy was to let Sisolak be himself and attend as many events in the community as he could.
“He is the best asset we will have on the campaign, no matter how much TV or digital or anything we could purchase,” Sloan said. “At the end of the day, Steve being Steve and Steve getting out there and talking to voters is the best asset we have … [we] put him in front of real people as often as we humanly possibly could.”
Laxalt was diligent in reaching out to rural Nevada, kicking off his campaign by barnstorming in all 17 counties when Sisolak skipped some. Driving up turnout in rural Nevada was what helped him win his attorney general race in 2014 even when he lost both Clark and Washoe counties.
But some observers believe his biggest mistake was not spending enough time in the county where 72 percent of the population lives, and then at one point tweeting an excerpt of an op-ed that suggested Sisolak would usher in an era of southern domination. Sisolak was an emblem of Clark County as chair of the commission and advocated for the southern institutions as a member of the Nevada Board of Regents.
“One of Sandoval’s secrets to success was that ‘One Nevada’ mantra,” Damore said. “Even though everyone knows there’s tensions and differences but you don’t make them explicit, and they did, and it just seems unbelievable. Maybe they didn’t think people down here would notice. But they just didn’t spend any time down here.”
In the end, far more people turned out in 2018 than in 2014. And the techniques that play well with the Republican base — preventing Nevada from becoming California, the hard line stances on the Commerce Tax and Obamacare, and the public appearances with Trump — did not carry the day for Laxalt or Sen. Dean Heller.
“It’s the middle that will be deciding elections in the future for sure and had a large part in the outcome of Tuesday,” White said. “I think they did not do a good job of messaging to them and really just went after their base and did not predict that folks would be turning out at the levels they were turning out at.”
Laxalt’s top adviser, Robert Uithoven, explained in an email that he believes the loss was a numbers game.
“The days of the midterm cycle in politics may be gone — at least in swing states — and we end up with almost presidential-level money, competition, interest and organization,” he told The Nevada Independent. “I hope Nevada can remain a swing state, but that’s in jeopardy when Republicans are already down 75,000 voters before the first ballot is cast.”
Laxalt’s advisers said he worked extremely hard on the campaign trail, phoning many voters personally in the final runup to Election Day. In an emotional concession speech, he told supporters “we left it all on the field.”
“Both candidates ran good campaigns, fought hard, and while 2014 wasn’t their cycle, 2018 was not ours,” Uithoven said. “Closing the registration gap must occur for Republicans to be competitive in the future.”
But the question remains whether groups such as the Republican National Committee — which invested so much to register voters and cultivate the ground game that helped Laxalt and other Republicans compete — will be as interested in Nevada in the future after a second consecutive blue year.
“That’s how I sort of looked at 2018 — as a potential tipping point. If the Republicans could hold their own this cycle, they would have some representation in government but also feeling pretty good about 2020,” Damore said. “Now the worry’s got to be Texas, Arizona. At the end of the day, by the time the next Senate race is here, [Nevada’s] going to be pretty blue.”
Female candidates were historically successful at the ballot box once the dust settled on a long Election Night, with a possible female majority in the Legislature on the horizon and women faring better than male candidates in key races.
A near total wipeout for Republicans in statewide offices was averted amid news that Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske was able to hold on and eke out a win over Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Araujo. Cegavske outperformed the rest of the Republican ticket and captured more votes in populous Clark County than any other statewide Republican candidate.
Further down the ballot, a record number of women prevailed in Nevada’s legislative races, and three victories by female candidates in state Supreme Court races means Nevada’s highest court will soon be majority female.
Victories were elusive for two state lawmakers seeking higher office. Araujo lost his bid to Cegavske, while Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson was defeated by former state Treasurer Kate Marshall in the race for lieutenant governor. Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford won his race for attorney general, but by a slim margin after a strong showing by Republican candidate Wes Duncan.
Read below for some highlights of Tuesday’s election that you may have missed.
Democrat Steve Sisolak bested Republican Adam Laxalt by more than 4 percentage points in the election, or by more than 39,000 votes.
Two races down the ballot, Cegavske provided the party with one of few bright spots on Election Day with a 6,200-vote win over Araujo despite few television ads and being substantially outraised and outspent by the Democratic assemblyman in the race.
So how did Cegavske pull it off? In short, her returns followed the path that other top Republicans hoped would lead them to victory in the midterms — staving off a massive defeat in populous Clark County, holding or tying vote totals in Washoe County and winning big enough in the rurals to capture victory.
Cegavske brought in more than 285,500 votes in Clark County, 19,300 more than Laxalt, 18,900 more than Heller and more than any other Republican running statewide. Araujo’s nearly 334,000 votes in Clark County were the fewest recorded among top Democrats in the county, running more than 24,000 votes behind Rep. Jacky Rosen.
The secretary of state was also one of three statewide Republicans to win swingy Washoe County, gaining slightly more than 1,400 votes over Araujo’s total. And Cegavske crushed Araujo in the state’s rural counties, winning 90,231 votes to his 36,326 votes, a difference of more than 53,900 votes. Cegavske’s margin of victory in total votes from rural counties was higher than those reported by Heller (50,129), Laxalt (51,181) and Duncan (53,296).
In an interview, Cegavske said she believed voters supported her because her campaign never went negative and because the connections she built in her 40-plus years in Nevada and through time spent campaigning throughout the state.
“A lot of people told me that I was the Republican they were going to vote for on their ticket,” she said. “So that makes me feel good.”
Unlike Heller and Laxalt, Cegavske made few public appearances with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence during their campaign visits to the state. She said it wasn’t intentional and only went to events that didn’t interfere with her secretary of state duties, including a veteran’s bill signing with the president in Las Vegas and Pence’s rally in Carson City in October.
Although control of the other five constitutional offices flipped from Republican to Democrat control, Cegavske said she doesn’t foresee any issues working with the new officer-holders given her non-partisan approach to the office and background with newly elected office-holders including Sisolak.
“I think we’ll all work out just fine,” she said.
But rural dominance and a win in Washoe County didn’t translate into a win for Republican attorney general hopeful Wes Duncan, underscoring the importance of Clark County in statewide races. Duncan’s vote total in Washoe eclipsed Ford by more than 5,800, and the Democrat posted the weakest numbers in the county (83,969) of all other major Democrats in the race, running more than 9,800 votes behind Rosen in the county.
But Ford’s vote total of 338,273 votes in Clark County — more than 63,800 votes than Duncan — was enough to stem losses outside of the state’s main population center and translate to a narrow 4,600-vote victory.
For state lawmakers hoping to make the jump to a statewide office, Tuesday’s results were a disappointment.
Roberson, running for lieutenant governor, fared poorly on Tuesday and brought in the smallest number of votes of any Republican running statewide, though he ran in the lone race with two independent candidates also vying for ballots.
Still, his 80,796 votes in Washoe County were the lowest of any major statewide candidate, losing the county by 14,400 votes to Democrat Kate Marshall. His margin of victory in rural counties of about 40,000 votes was also about 10,000 fewer than the tallies reported by other top Republicans such as Heller and Duncan.
Roberson’s legislative counterparts also fared poorly in Washoe County. Ford’s 83,969 votes were the second-lowest total reported behind Roberson, and ran more than 10,000 behind the totals recorded by Rosen and Sisolak. Ford and Araujo’s opponents were the only statewide Republicans to win in Washoe County outside of treasurer candidate Bob Beers.
High vote totals in Clark County were able to save Ford but not Araujo. Although Ford tallied only about 3,500 votes more than Araujo, Cegavske’s better performance in the county than Duncan by about 11,000 votes led to her victory and sealed Duncan’s narrow defeat.
The Year of the Women
2018 was touted as the Year of the Women, and in Nevada, the adage proved true.
Thirty women will serve in the Legislature next year after women either held onto or picked up seats in six competitive races in the Assembly. (That number would have been 31 if former Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, a Republican, had defeated incumbent Democrat Skip Daly for the Assembly District 31 seat.)
With final results in from Clark County, there will be 22 women and 20 men in the Assembly, a majority in that chamber, and 13 men and eight women in the Senate. In total, there will be 33 men and 30 women serving in the Legislature.
However, there are three seats that will be up for appointment before the upcoming legislative session — those held by Democratic state Sens. Tick Segerblom and Ford and newly elected Republican Assemblyman Dennis Hof, who died last month. If two of those seats are filled by women, it is possible for the Legislature to be made up of a majority of women.
Half of the state’s constitutional offices — lieutenant governor, secretary of state and controller — were won by female candidates. Cegavske was the only Republican to win statewide in the election, and incoming Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall and Controller Catherine Byrne were the only statewide Democratic candidates to eclipse more than 50 percent of the vote.
Nevada’s congressional delegation has also become majority female, with Democrats Rosen in the Senate and Susie Lee in the House joining incumbents Rep. Dina Titus and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in Congress. Nevada will also become the seventh state to have a pair of female senators.
Nevada’s Supreme Court will also have a majority of female justices for the first time in history, following victories by District Court Judge Elissa Cadish, incumbent Lidia Stiglich and Court of Appeals Justice Abbi Silver. Along with Justice Kristina Pickering, the four will make up a majority of the seven-member court.
The state also approved the “Pink Tax” ballot question exempting feminine hygiene products from state sales tax on a comfortable 56 to 43 percent difference.
Hardy outperforms Tarkanian in House races
Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District should be a safer bet for Republicans than the 4th Congressional District. Yet the Republican candidate for the 4th District, former Rep. Cresent Hardy, outperformed the Republican in the 3rd District, businessman Danny Tarkanian, Tuesday night, though both candidates ultimately lost their races.
Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District is also its swingiest, with only 7,064 more registered Democrats than Republicans. In its 16-year history, the suburban House seat has twice been held by Democrats, who served one term each, and twice by Republicans, who served three terms each.
It’s a far cry from Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, a bluer seat that includes Democratic strongholds in the older parts of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas as well as portions of several traditionally red rural Nevada counties. That district, which has 36,577 more Democrats than Republicans, has once been represented by a Republican, Hardy, and twice represented by a Democrat.
But Hardy still managed to secure 43.7 percent of the vote in the 4th District Tuesday night, ultimately losing by only 8.3 percentage points to another of the district’s former representatives, Democrat Steven Horsford. That’s a smaller margin of loss than the 9.3 percentage-point voter registration advantage that Democrats have in the district.
By contrast, Tarkanian only secured 42.9 percent of the vote, losing to Democratic education advocate and philanthropist Susie Lee by 9.1 percentage points even though Democrats only hold a 1.6 percentage point advantage in the district. It was also much more significant than the 1.2 percentage point loss in 2016 to now-Senator elect Jacky Rosen, the district’s current representative.
In terms of raw votes, Hardy lost by 19,140 votes while Tarkanian lost by 25,543 votes.
Hardy was likely boosted by the fact that like Horsford, he, too, previously represented the district. He was also helped by a strong showing in the rurals — where he had an 11,571 vote advantage over Horsford — that helped offset Horsford’s 30,711 vote lead in Clark County.
No Bundy spoiler
GOP fears that nonpartisan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Bundy — son of controversial Mesquite rancher Cliven Bundy — would bleed away enough votes from Laxalt to give Sisolak the victory turned out to be largely unfounded.
At the close of polls, Bundy’s vote total sat at just over 13,800 votes, or about 1.4 percent of votes cast in the gubernatorial race. Giving those votes to Laxalt wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the race, which Sisolak won by 39,819 votes.
Bundy outperformed two other third party candidates, Independent American Party candidate Russell Best (10,064 votes) and Libertarian Party candidate Jared Lord (8,639 votes). But his vote total ended up being less than the roughly 2 percent of voters who cast ballots for “None of these candidates.”
Updated at 12:12 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2018: An original version of this story stated that Cegavske was one of two statewide Republican candidates to win Washoe County. Three Republican candidates won in Washoe.
Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak defeated Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt in an intensely hard-fought race to replace Gov. Brian Sandoval, ushering a Democrat into the Nevada governor’s mansion for the first time in 20 years.
The fierce contest pitted the staunchly conservative 40-year-old Laxalt against the 64-year-old moderate Democrat Sisolak in a cycle when Democratic enthusiasm bested a similarly charged-up Republican base and appeared poised to carry a slate of down-ballot Democrats in statewide contests to victory.
The governor-elect sounded a message of unity in a speech to supporters at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where Democrats were celebrating a series of major wins.
“I want all of you to know that no matter who you voted for, I will work my heart out for you. Because this election is about you. It’s about putting your priorities first and that’s what I’m determined to do as your next governor,” Sisolak said in prepared remarks. “We’ll be one Nevada, working together — and that work starts now.”
Sisolak was one of the last candidates to speak during Tuesday night’s watch party, and some attendees had already filtered out of the room after remarks by Democratic Senate race victor Jacky Rosen. But that didn’t stop the crowd from celebrating loudly, cheering often during Sisolak’s 10-minute speech.
Laxalt told a half-empty Reno ballroom Tuesday night that he’d called to concede to Sisolak, a little more than a day after he told a campaign office of supporters cheering “Adam! Adam!” that he felt great about the race.
“To come up short is always difficult. But I was truly passionate in what I was fighting for for our great state, as were all of you in this room,” an emotional Laxalt said. “And I mentioned on the outset that I pledge my support to the governor-elect and ask you to do the same. We need to come together as a state and make sure we can move Nevada forward."
Laxalt had framed himself as a bulwark against the “Californication” of Nevada, signing a pledge to oppose any tax increases, vowing to oppose an increase in the minimum wage and promising to cut regulations. He vowed to protect people with pre-existing conditions in spite of his opposition to Obamacare and add $500 million to education in spite of his promise to try repealing the Commerce Tax that Sandoval brought to pass.
Ever shy of the media, Laxalt never fully explained how he planned to accomplish those two goals. The candidates never debated, making the race the first competitive Nevada governor’s contest in some 35 years, and one of two governor’s races nationwide this cycle, not to feature a face-off.
Sisolak promised to build on Sandoval’s legacy and capitalized on the fact that the popular governor did not endorse Laxalt. He pledged to reduce class sizes, raise teacher pay, protect pre-existing conditions and preserve abortion rights.
Opponents raised the specter that Sisolak would raise property taxes, pointing to a video in which Sisolak told supporters that property taxes would be a way to pay for “it.” He said in a primary debate that “everything is on the table” in terms of tax increases, but said in more recent interviews that he doesn’t think a tax increase is needed right now.
Laxalt counted on the Republican National Committee’s turnout machine to help boost himself and fellow GOP politicians, while Sisolak had support from the powerful Culinary Union and the AFL-CIO, among others. Outside groups also played a major role in the race, spending about $27 million on the race.
Laxalt, a Navy veteran who was born in Nevada but grew up in Virginia, is the grandson of the late, respected former Nevada governor and Sen. Paul Laxalt. In recent years, it was revealed that his father was Paul Laxalt’s friend, the late New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici.
Sisolak, a Wisconsin native who spent a decade on the Nevada Board of Regents and then a decade on the powerful Clark County Commission, owned companies that sold customized promotional items to businesses. He also benefited from a $15 million judgment he scored from the county-owned McCarran International Airport in the early 2000s amid a suit alleging the proximity of the airport and height restrictions devalued property he owned in the area.
Although there was speculation that conservative nonpartisan candidate Ryan Bundy would take votes away from Laxalt, the son of notorious rancher Cliven Bundy appeared to take less than 2 percent of the total votes in the governor’s race, a bit more than Libertarian and Independent American Party candidates in the race.
Democrat Kate Marshall defeated state Senate Republican Leader Michael Roberson in the race for lieutenant governor, a second-ranking officer in the executive branch who presides over the Senate and casts any tie-breaking votes.
Marshall’s victory marks her return to Nevada’s political world. She previously served two terms as the state’s treasurer, having won elections in 2006 and 2010, making unsuccessful bids for a U.S. House seat in 2011 and for Secretary of State in 2014.
“From Day 1, my priority as Lt. Governor will be to build the bridges within our state and across the aisle to create an economy where economic opportunity is shared and prosperity is within reach for all,” she said in a statement, calling her election an “honor.”
Just before polls closed, Roberson was tweeting about a Kansas Jayhawks basketball victory, but he didn’t give a speech after election returns showed a clear defeat. A day earlier, he had predicted to a room of supporters that “we’re going to win tomorrow.”
Roberson’s loss halts his climb up the political ladder in the Nevada Republican Party. He was elected to the state Senate in 2010 and won re-election four years later, capturing 60 percent of the votes for District 20, which includes a large chunk of Henderson.
He shepherded Sandoval’s education reforms and tax package as the top senator in the Legislature in 2015, but his support for the tax increase proved an Achilles heel in a 2016 congressional primary against Republican Danny Tarkanian.
Marshall boasted a fundraising edge during the calendar year, banking roughly $682,000 compared with Roberson’s $589,000, according to campaign finance reports. She also spent about $784,000 since the start of this year, while Roberson shelled out more than $670,000 during that same time period.
Republican attorney general candidate Wes Duncan conceded the race to Democrat Aaron Ford early Wednesday morning, after the last batch of polls from Clark County showed him more than 7,000 votes behind Ford.
The race proved a disappointment for local and national Republicans, who saw the well-liked Duncan - a former assemblyman and top deputy in Laxalt's attorney general's office - as likely to run ahead of other top Republican candidates on the ticket. Although Ford, the state's senate Majority Leader, received fewer votes than any other Democrat running for a statewide office, strong support in Clark County and a close margin in Washoe County was enough to boost him over Duncan by less than one percentage point.
As of 2 a.m. on Wednesday, races for controller, treasurer and secretary of state were too close to call.
On the eve of the election, a lineup of Republican candidates had crowded into a Las Vegas campaign office to fire up staff and volunteers as TV cameras rolled.
Their chants of “Adam! Adam!” and predictions that they’d be turning Nevada red on Tuesday came as early voting returns show about 22,000 more Democrats than Republicans statewide have cast ballots early. That’s a 3.5 percentage point lead for Democrats — a notable gap that Republicans hope they can close with their traditionally strong Election Day turnout and with a ground game that’s more refined than in years past.
“We're in the bottom of the ninth, we're down one, there's a runner on third base. We need to hit a home run,” said Republican attorney general candidate Wes Duncan, before urging attendees to tell everyone they know to get out and vote.
Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who’s running for governor, also projected confidence, saying he thinks voters see a clear choice in their candidates for the top statewide post.
“We feel great about this race,” Laxalt said in a speech, before shaking a few hands and avoiding the press by slipping out a back door. “We believe that there are going to be enough Nevadans to put me in the governor's office.”
With polls opening at 7 a.m., voters will have the final say Tuesday on how effective the campaigns were in turning out an unusually engaged electorate for a non-presidential year. At stake is a Senate race that Democrats need to win to have any hope of wresting control of the chamber from Republicans, the closest gubernatorial race in the country and a ballot measure that will determine the future of the state’s energy market.
Campaigns have spent much the last two weeks of October making their final pitches, flying in surrogates from President Donald Trump to former President Barack Obama in an effort to rev up support from their parties’ bases. They’ve also appealed directly to voters by knocking on doors, flooding airwaves, and crowding mailboxes in an attempt to persuade undecided voters — and cast aspersions on their opponents in an attempt to dissuade otherwise decided ones.
Amid a packed day of events ranging from pizza with community college students to a lunch with union workers at a hospital, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak started Monday at a place closely associated with him — the 62-acre construction site that will soon host the $1.9 billion domed stadium on the Las Vegas Strip.
Dressed in a reflective vest and steel-toed boots after touring the site, Sisolak largely pivoted away from questions about President Donald Trump’s effect on the race and whether he felt confident about his chances after the first two weeks of early voting, acknowledging only that it remained “tight.” Flanked by a posse of union members, the Democrat jumped at a chance to extol the help his campaign has received from organized labor and the benefits of large-scale construction projects.
“You’re looking at between these two sites, here and the (Las Vegas) Convention Center where we’re going, it’s 30,000 construction jobs,” he said. “That’s putting a lot of people to work. Those aren’t numbers. It’s important to understand those are families, there’s a family and a person behind every one of those numbers.”
Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Jacky Rosen spent the lunch hour talking to supporters at the home of Clark County Democratic Party Chair Donna West, whose garage has been a home base for canvassers. Rosen’s campaign, on guard in the tense political climate, called for police after finding a suspicious package outside West’s home.
Police carefully opened the cardboard box. To the relief of those gathered, the only thing inside was campaign literature.
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s Twitter account showed he was doing interviews with Reno media outlets, visiting Northern Nevada campaign offices and making calls to supporters on Monday to get out the vote in his closely watched race.
In Henderson, a trio of men wearing cowboy hats were seen walking on a sidewalk Monday evening carrying a large sign for nonpartisan candidate Ryan Bundy, along with Nevada and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. On the opposite side of the busy street was a megaphone-wielding man carrying a sign for Laxalt, whose campaign is seen as the one with most to lose to the conservative Bundy.
Behind the candidates are small armies of dedicated, if tired, staff and volunteers.
Off a busy street in Reno on Friday afternoon, Amanda Flocchini sat at a table in an office cluttered with campaign signs to re-elect Heller. Flocchini, a recent UNR graduate, was four days away from finishing her first campaign, making phone calls and knocking on doors in an attempt to bolster the Republicans’ ground game in Northern Nevada.
What she expected for the next four days: “Probably not a lot of sleep.”
“It’s really about trying to make as much voter contact as possible,” Flocchini said.
On Thursday, a few miles from the Heller basecamp, Pam Jonidis was preparing her campaign materials to go door-knocking just after hearing from Heller’s opponent, Rosen, who stopped at the Democrats’ Sparks campaign office.
Jonidis described herself as having been an apathetic voter in the past, rarely going out to vote and campaigning once for former President George H. W. Bush in Florida. Jonidis is no longer a Republican, and she said her partisan leanings have shifted even further to the left since 2016.
“This year, the last two years, I’m so disgusted at what I’m seeing happen in my country,” Jonidis said. “Not only President Trump. [It’s] everything that happened in Congress this year.”
The path to victory for statewide candidates is likely to run through Flocchini’s and Jonidis’s backyards — Washoe County. While Democrats work hard to boost turnout in blue Clark County and Republicans appeal to their red base in the rural counties, Washoe is the famously purple swing county that has the potential to make or break campaign on either side of the aisle.
And Democrats bested Republicans in Washoe County during the two week early voting period, securing an 1,800-vote lead. Democrats’ statewide lead is boosted by a 47,000-person lead in Clark County, which was mitigated by a 27,000-person lead for Republicans in the rurals.
Those numbers look more like what they do during a presidential year, which usually sees higher levels of voters turning out than a midterm election. Total turnout in the two-week early voting period was at about 40 percent compared to about 25 percent in the 2014 midterm. And organizers like Flocchini and Jonidis, who have been working on the ground, said it was apparent that voters across the spectrum were paying attention this year.
“We’re really pleased to see [the high turnout],” Deanna Spikula, the Washoe County registrar, said on Monday. “It’s going to be busy out there if we see the same amount of turnout as we did in early voting. We’re glad people are engaged in the process.”
Eric Herzik, who chairs the political science department at UNR, said he thought the surge in engagement was a reaction to the divisiveness of the Trump presidency.
“Democrats really see some of their core constituencies at risk,” he said. “The core Trump Republican Party just wants to confirm his greatness. You’ve got two sides that are entrenched and just talking past each other.”
But the high numbers of turnout this year may also be a byproduct of the effort that the Democratic and Republican parties in Nevada have put into the midterm election this year with so much at stake.
Democrats, meanwhile, have revved up the so-called Reid machine, named for former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, which has helped propel their party to victory over the last few election cycles including the blue wave of 2016. The Culinary Union, a critical part of the machine, has had 350 guest room attendants, bartenders, bellmen, cooks, and others working up to 12 hours a day canvassing through Election Day and will have knocked more than 385,000 doors and had one-on-one conversations with 84,000 voters across the state.
Though Democrats lead in early voting — including the slim lead in Washoe County that Herzik described as “significant” — it’s not looking like a “blue wave” year just yet. Herzik said that depends on today’s turnout and another increasingly big factor: the independent voter.
In the last decade, the number of active registered nonpartisan voters in Nevada has increased to about 22 percent of the electorate. This year, they have been courted by all sides. Out of the 629,922 voters who cast ballots in early voting, about 21 percent were nonpartisans.
Candidates themselves even seem prepared for a range of possible outcomes as the state’s top races remain in doubt. Duncan quickly listed off a host of issues he could work on with Democrats if Laxalt were to fall short, including mental health treatment, transitional housing and psychiatric ERs.
“You’re going to have to work with whoever is in the governor's office to try and do the best for the state,” he said.
Keeping an eye on the polls
With two tight races for Senate and governor, partisan and federal observers are expected to join voters at the ballot box. On Monday, the Department of Justice announced that it selected Clark County and Washoe County as two of the 35 jurisdictions where the agency would send personnel to monitor local compliance with federal election laws.
Spikula, the Washoe County registrar, called the decision routine, noting that the department sent monitors in 2016. On Monday morning, two of the monitors came to the office to share contact information and introduce themselves to county officials, Spikula said.
“They’ve been here in 2016, and we welcome all of our observers to come, whether they be partisan observers or any other observer that wants to watch the process,” she said.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney Dayle Elieson also announced that Allison Reese, an assistant attorney, will handle complaints filed with the Justice Department. Such complaints would cover issues such as voter intimidation and or buying and selling votes. Unlawful behavior can be reported to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division online or at 800-253-3931.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak has reported receiving $100,000 in campaign contributions from companies and people affiliated with incarcerated sports bettor and Las Vegas developer Billy Walters.
According to a campaign finance report filed by Sisolak on Friday, the Clark County Commission chairman received nine separate $10,000 contributions from entities that all listed the same address as The Walters Group, which is run by Billy Walters, as well as a separate $10,000 contribution from his wife Susan Walters. The contributions made up about 7 percent of the $1.4 million Sisolak reported raising over the pre-election contributions report, which covers Oct. 13 to Nov. 1.
Most of the nine entities that contributed to Sisolak — WF Irrv TR Kentucky, WF Irrv Tr Lexington CDJRF, LLC, BW Auto Ventures LLC, BW-Budget-SDA, LLC, WF Irrv TR Douglasville, Cricket Interiors, WF Irrv Tr Lexington HY, WF Irrv Tr Lithia Springs CDJR and SBW Capital, LLC -- don’t appear to be registered in Nevada. Billy Walters is listed as a managing member of BW Auto Ventures, which operates a car dealership in Kentucky.
The Sisolak campaign said the businesses were associated with Susan Walters, the wife of Billy Walters. Jay Brown, who’s worked as Walters' attorney, said it was his understanding that Billy Walters transferred control of the couple’s business entities entirely to his wife after his felony conviction last year.
Several entities with the same address contributed a cumulative $25,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt in the most recent reporting period; $10,000 each from WF Irrv Tr McDonough, WF Irrv Tr Covina and $5,000 from WF Irrv Tr Lexington Niss, all made on Oct. 16.
Walters, 72, was sentenced to 5 years in prison and a $10 million fine in 2017 over his role in a $43 million insider-trading scheme in a case that also involved professional golfer Phil Mickelson. He’s also been a longtime supporter of Sisolak, with his affiliated businesses contributing more than $160,000 to the Clark County Commissioner’s various political campaigns over the last seven years.
But more recently, Sisolak has played a different role with Walters — as a witness in the federal government’s lawsuit against Clark County and a Walters-owned golf course over allegations of millions of dollars in uncollected rent at a major golf course on the Las Vegas Strip.
Sisolak sat for a deposition on Aug. 23 on the case, which saw the Department of Justice file charges against the county and company over allegations that the Bali Hai golf course failed to follow through on contractual demands after the land was transferred from federal to local control -- and that the federal government was losing millions of dollars in rent from the site.
A deposition cited in a discovery motion by attorneys for Nevada Links, the Walters-owned company that owns the golf course, includes the commissioner saying he was unaware of how many “participatory leases” the county had participated in. Such leases, which the county entered into with Walters’ company, don’t mandate a minimum rent but instead require the developer share profits with the county. The golf course has failed to generate a profit since it was built in 2000 (before Sisolak was on the commission), though some critics have said the contract gave Walters too much leeway in declaring what could be considered an expense.
The case is still pending in federal court. Sisolak’s campaign said that as chairman of the commission, he is often the default commissioner for any depositions involving litigation against the county.
Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt quietly signed Nevada on to support pharmacists in Washington State who said they did not want to stock or dispense emergency contraception because it violated their religious beliefs.
In February 2016, Laxalt added Nevada to an amicus brief with 12 other states in support of two Olympia, Washington pharmacists who consider the so-called “morning after pill” a form of abortion. They were challenging a 2007 regulation that specified pharmacists must dispense all FDA-approved drugs to patients regardless of moral or religious objections.
“This Court has long recognized the sincere and constitutionally protected objections many individuals have over the termination of pregnancy,” the states’ brief said. “These issues have ‘profound moral and spiritual implications,’ and thus ‘[m]en and women of good conscience can disagree, and we suppose some always shall disagree.’”
A federal District Court judge ruled in 2012 that the regulation violated the religious freedom of pharmacy owners, but a three-judge panel of federal appeals court judges overturned the ruling in 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, meaning the 2007 regulation stands.
Nevada does not have a similar law mandating pharmacists fill all valid prescriptions, nor does it have a carve-out allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription on religious grounds. The Board of Pharmacy does have regulations that specify a pharmacist can refuse to fill a prescription if they believe the patient will suffer immediate and serious health consequences if they dispense the medication.
Laxalt did not issue a press release announcing his involvement in the Washington case, and it has not been previously reported. Laxalt’s campaign did not answer an inquiry Monday about whether he would propose or support a law enshrining conscience protections in Nevada if elected governor.
Emergency contraception such as Plan B contains a high dose of a hormone used in regular birth control pills and prevents the release of an egg from the ovary. It’s taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex or a birth control failure and is generally not lumped in as an abortion pill because it does not stop the development of a fetus once a fertilized egg has implanted in the uterus.
The abortion pill or RU-486, by contrast, can end an actual pregnancy up to about two months of gestation.
Laxalt, who describes himself as pro-life, has previously supported regulations that aim to protect health workers who don’t want to render certain medical services because of their religious or moral objections. Critics say such policies lead to religion-based discrimination.
An Eastern European businessman who made headlines for his links to a large contribution to a pro-Donald Trump Super PAC has contributed maximum donations to Republican candidates for governor and attorney general.
Igor Fruman, an Eastern European businessman tied to the “virtually unknown” company Global Energy Producers LLC, made maximum $10,000 contributions to Adam Laxalt and Wes Duncan on Nov. 1, according to their most recent campaign finance reports filed with the secretary of state’s office.
A company called “Global Energy Producers LLC” with links to Fruman and executive Lev Parnas made a $325,000 contribution to pro-Trump Super PAC America First Action in May, making them one of the largest contributors to the PAC. The group was accused of breaking campaign finance law in June after the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint asserting that it was highly unlikely the company would have enough capital to make such a large political contribution only one month after it was founded.
According to The Daily Beast, Fruman was born and Belarus and lived in Ukraine before immigrating to Miami in 2004, but still holds extensive business ties in the country. He has also contributed $100,000 to a joint fundraising committee supporting House Republicans and to other committees supporting Trump, Florida Senate candidate Rick Scott and Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis.
In a statement sent to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the company said the donation was “100% legal” and that the donation made to the pro-Trump PAC was a “small fraction” of the company’s operating costs.
On one hand, there is Steve Sisolak, the self-assured, 64-year-old Clark County Commission chair who has scaled the political ranks in the Democratic Party over the last 25 years before launching his campaign for governor.
On the other, there is Adam Laxalt, the 40-year-old, first-term Republican attorney general who arrived in Nevada seven years ago but whose family name, conservative bona fides and patrons may propel him to victory even though he shies away from the public spotlight.
“I wouldn't even say we're guardedly optimistic. I would say we're very guarded,” said the AFL-CIO’s Rusty McAllister, whose groups are supporting Sisolak. “These races are extremely close.”
At a short campaign stop in an East Las Vegas senior apartment complex on Tuesday, Sisolak sat down for an interview of about 15 minutes. Laxalt has taken a different tack on the trail — while he opens for big-name campaign rallies headlined by President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, he rarely grants interviews, and his campaign team did not respond to requests for information or interviews for this story.
He is also seldom heard in his own campaign commercials, which more often feature his wife or a narrator. An analysis of commercials through last Wednesday shows that Laxalt’s voice is heard in less than 3 percent of general election spots broadcast in the campaign so far. Sisolak’s booming voice, by contrast, is heard in more than 95 percent of the commercials that have aired.
And the two have not debated — something that is unheard of for a close Nevada governor race in at least the last 35 years.
But even if the attorney general shirks the limelight, the tight race is evidence that Laxalt’s message has cut deep with voters. In a year where Democrats are expected to easily secure control of both chambers of the Legislature, Laxalt cast himself as the only person standing in the way of Democratic control that would make the state look like California — a place where Republicans are largely sidelined.
“We can go the way of California, high taxes, more regulations, crazy ideas,” Laxalt said at a rally last week. “Or, we can choose the path of the Nevada that we all love.”
Sisolak has capitalized on the fact that the popular Sandoval has declined to endorse fellow Republican Laxalt, featuring the moderate governor’s smiling face in commercials and vowing to continue the work that he did on education and health care.
“I think he’s tried to bring people together, which is what I want to do … I believe as he does that compromise is not necessarily a bad word,” Sisolak said. “Adam comes from a different mold than I do. He’s winner take all.”
Whoever wins will have immense power in a state where a full-time governor builds and recommends a budget for review to a part-time Legislature, setting an agenda that could shape the future of Nevada’s schools, economy and social safety net. Interviews and a review of both men’s past accomplishments give a glimpse of what Nevadans might expect from whoever emerges the victor on Tuesday night.
Laxalt: A political pedigree
Born in Reno on August 31, 1978, Laxalt spent his formative years in and around Washington, D.C., where his mother, Michelle Laxalt, was a successful Republican lobbyist and pundit. As a single mother, Michelle Laxalt raised her son with the help of her father, the late, highly respected former U.S. senator and Nevada governor, Paul Laxalt.
Laxalt was born of an affair between Michelle Laxalt and U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, an older Republican senator from New Mexico and one of Paul Laxalt’s colleagues; Laxalt “didn’t know (his) dad growing up at all,” according to his first campaign commercial.
Through his family’s connections, Laxalt was exposed early in his life to Washington’s political juggernaut. Former Nevada Gov. Bob List, one of Laxalt’s advisers, said that Michelle Laxalt played a significant role in helping to shape her son’s political philosophy.
“He was just exposed to her logic and her point of view, and growing up in the Washington metropolitan area, you’re constantly inundated with debate and dialogue from both sides,” List said. “He took it all in.”
But asked in a recent interview with Fox 5 in Las Vegas about whether he wanted to go into politics from a young age, Laxalt said “never” and added that “no one had done any politics in our family for decades.” He explained that his grandfather had not been on the ballot since his victorious campaign for Senate in 1980. Paul Laxalt also briefly ran for president in 1987, eventually dropping the bid to co-chair former President George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign.
As a child, Laxalt returned to Nevada to spend time with his family during the holidays and summers, including with his grandfather at Northern Nevada’s Marlette Lake, List said. His mother eventually married and had two daughters, Tessa and Tori.
In spite of his well-connected family, Laxalt had troubled teenage years. He started to drink as a student at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, a private prep school in Alexandria, and it continued to his college days at Tulane University in New Orleans. At 17, Laxalt was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer and a year later was arrested for driving under the influence.
In a 1999 interview with the Washingtonian magazine, Laxalt described Tulane as “just too much fun, too many women, and too much booze.” Home for a break between semesters, Laxalt drove drunk one night home from his friend’s house and was pulled over by Alexandria police.
According to the Washingtonian, Michelle Laxalt was so upset with her son that she didn’t speak to him for two days. A lawyer advised “there was no way he could get me out of this” and that his only option would be to undergo treatment. The mother and son drove to Paul Laxalt’s office downtown, where the two told Laxalt that his bags were packed and that he would be leaving to attend a rehab program at the Hazelden Foundation near Minneapolis.
“Looking at my grandfather, whom I respect more than anyone with the exception of my mother, and to see how disappointed I made them was real rough,” he told the Washingtonian.
Laxalt initially resisted treatment, but he had an epiphany when his counselor told him he had a drinking problem and broke down crying for 20 minutes, he told the magazine. He returned home to Washington after completing the program, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week for the first few months and stopped drinking entirely.
Laxalt then enrolled at Georgetown University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree and earned a law degree in 2005. He also worked as a special assistant to John Bolton, who was then undersecretary of state and is now the country’s national security adviser, and as a staff member for U.S. Sen. John Warner of Virginia.
In 2005, Laxalt joined the Navy, deploying to Iraq from 2006 to 2007 as a judge advocate general. A Navy performance report said he was responsible for reviewing, briefing, and presenting more than 1,400 detainee cases to panels of U.S. and Iraqi members. He was later promoted and supervised six paralegals and six officers as they tracked 35,000 detainee files.
When he returned to the United States, Laxalt taught at the Naval Academy. List said it was during that time that Laxalt met his wife, Jaime, thanks to a suggestion from none other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who he knew through his family.
As List tells it, Laxalt dropped in one day for a visit with Scalia, who asked where he was going to church. Laxalt said he attended church in Annapolis but was looking for a change, and Scalia recommended a parish in Virginia where his son was the priest.
“The following Sunday he attended Father [Paul] Scalia’s service and afterward walked up and spoke with Father Scalia, whom he knew, and said, ‘By the way, do you have any idea who that young lady was sitting down in the pew from me?’ and Father Scalia said, ‘Oh yeah that’s a young lady, her name is Jaime, do you want to meet her?’ So he introduced the two of them and that was it,” List said. “They soon got engaged and were later married by Father Scalia.”
“I am deeply grieving the loss of Justice Scalia in two ways: as a friend, blessed by his kindness, and as an American, blessed by his wisdom,” Laxalt said in a statement. “He was by my account, and no doubt by many, the greatest jurist of our lifetime.”
Around the time he left the Navy, Laxalt started going public with his conservative positions through articles in the National Review, where he wrote on issues from defense spending to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He penned some columns alone and others with Ron DeSantis, his roommate at the Naval Justice School in Rhode Island who is running for Florida governor as a Republican.
“Allowing homosexuals to ‘live out’ their sexuality and their relationships in the military would cause many problems,” Laxalt wrote in National Review in 2010. “Along with more sex comes more assaults, more sexual tension, and more of everything we already battle on a daily basis. Politicians must be able to step up and discuss this without fear of being slammed as bigots.”
Laxalt married in October 2011 and moved to Nevada, where he joined the law firm Lewis Roca Rothberger and was admitted to the bar in 2012. That year, he also co-founded the Nevada chapter of the St. Thomas More Society, an organization of Catholic lawyers.
Sisolak: From Wisconsin to Nevada
Sisolak was born the day after Christmas in 1953, the middle of three children, and raised in the Milwaukee area. He describes his childhood as normal — his dad worked for General Motors for 34 years and his mom was a clerk at grocery stores including Piggly Wiggly.
He attended Wauwatosa West High School, where he was a member of the National Honor Society and student council. He lettered in basketball and also played football, track and golf, according to a Chamber of Commerce biography.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1974, Sisolak started exploring his options for graduate school. He said he settled on UNLV for his MBA because California schools were too expensive and the weather was nice in Nevada. He’s lived in Nevada ever since.
To put himself through school, Sisolak worked at the California Club weighing coins inside slot machines to determine how much money was inside, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He’d grab a free buffet breakfast after his 2 a.m. shift before going to class.
“That job was important to me. I was on my own. Even though rent was only $35, I didn’t have $35,” Sisolak told the paper. “I had to make that money in order to continue.”
He’s Catholic, and says his faith was strengthened in part by a near-death experience during a surgery in 1979.
After college, Sisolak went on to start two businesses, including American Distributing and Associated Industries. Opponents have described them pejoratively as telemarketing operations, but he characterizes them as business-to-business entities that sold custom-branded pens, mugs and other promotional materials and just happened to use the telephone.
In 1987, he married Lori Ann Garland and the couple had two daughters, Ashley and Carley. Garland filed for divorce in 2000, and Sisolak and the girls have filmed campaign commercials talking about his time as a single dad.
In the early 1990s, Sisolak emerged on the Nevada political scene during an effort to crack down on telemarketing scams. Then-state-Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus said he was tapped to be a member of a commission studying the matter and began to testify before the Legislature on proposed legislation to require telemarketers to register with the state instead of receiving a license.
“I met him when he was lobbying and we became friends,” she said. “There was a strong commitment to excellence. I thought that he gave good testimony, very well-prepared, very factual and very respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
Titus said she eventually tried to have him challenge incumbent Republican state Sen. Bill O’Donnell as part of an effort to secure Democratic control of the state Senate. His efforts to land a legislative seat in the 1990s failed — he lost by 10 percentage points in 1994, and by 5 percentage points when he challenged Ann O’Connell in 1996 — but it wasn’t the end of the road.
Gov. Bob Miller appointed Sisolak to replace Rory Reid on the Nevada Taxicab Authority in 1997. A year later, Sisolak was successfully elected to the Nevada Board of Regents, beating his opponent by 22 percentage points.
In 2001, Sisolak filed a lawsuit against McCarran International Airport, which is operated by Clark County. He alleged that a 10-acre plot he owned in southwest Las Vegas was losing value because of the expansion of the airport amid rules restricting the height of development nearby, and the increasing traffic, noise and fumes in the area.
After two years, a court sided with Sisolak, awarding him $15 million. He went on to sell his businesses in the mid-2000s and became a business consultant.
The court award has been the subject of Republican attacks, including in a recent fundraising email from Laxalt campaign manager Kristin Davison.
“He’s used a $15 million personal payout of taxpayer dollars to become a Clark County political kingpin,” she wrote. “He hands out contracts to his cronies and helps them get rich off of Nevada taxpayers, too!”
Laxalt’s rapid rise
Laxalt was relatively unknown when reports in 2013 revealed a long-held family secret: that Laxalt’s father was Sen. Domenici, who was married with eight other children and significantly older than Michelle Laxalt.
Laxalt has said little publicly about the family matter and it’s unclear how much he interacts with his father’s family, although Laxalt’s half-sister Nella Domenici has made an in-kind contribution to his campaign. When Domenici died last September at the age of 85, he issued a short statement.
“I am profoundly saddened by the passing of my father,” he wrote. “He leaves behind a wonderful, talented, and loving family. He was a great man who I will dearly miss.”
The revelation of his parentage helped clear the air ahead of Laxalt’s announcement that he would run for attorney general in the 2014 election against Ross Miller, the two-term Democratic secretary of state and son of the former Gov. Bob Miller.
"Most people were discouraging us, saying wait your turn," said Robert Uithoven, Laxalt’s top adviser in his 2014 and 2018 campaigns, in an interview with The Associated Press in 2015. "The more Adam heard that advice, the more it drove him to run."
The clean-cut, uniformed Laxalt cut a sharp profile in campaign ads even after the leak of a job review referred to him as a “train wreck” who didn’t “even have the basic skill set” and had “horrible client service toward his partners.”
But Laxalt’s nimble campaign swiftly batted back criticisms that he was not ready to take the state’s top law enforcement officer position and went on the offensive, questioning gifts that Miller had received in office. Observers were also critical of Miller’s debate performance — at one point, he suggested Laxalt was a paper-pusher in the military, and Laxalt turned it against Miller, who had not served in the military.
Laxalt also benefited from deeply depressed Democratic turnout during a midterm election in which Nevada had no Senate race or competitive governor’s contest. That led to a red wave and Laxalt’s one-point upset of the more established Miller.
Laxalt has framed his entree into the political scene as a new generation of Iraq War-era veterans taking up the mantle of leadership.
"If my race will signal one thing, it's to encourage the new generation to take these shots and to run,” Laxalt told the AP. "We need leadership today, not in a decade."
With help from a savvy team of deputies, Laxalt’s office created a “federalism unit” and embarked on a campaign against what it called the Obama administration’s federal overreach just as Obama’s term drew to a close and Congress deadlocked further against him.
One of Laxalt’s first moves as attorney general was to sign Nevada onto a lawsuit challenging Obama’s executive order expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and extending deportation relief to parents of DREAMers. He referred to the program in the 2015 forum with the Federalist Society as “executive amnesty.”
The lawsuit went to a Texas court, where a judge issued an injunction against Obama’s program. The U.S. Supreme Court — short one judge after Scalia’s death — deadlocked 4-4, allowing the injunction to stand.
Laxalt had similar success when he led 21 states in challenging the Obama administration’s effort to remove the “white collar exemption” that allows businesses not to pay overtime to employees in certain administrative roles.
The rule would have made about 4 million more workers eligible for overtime pay in the first year of implementation, but Laxalt argued it would be a crushing financial blow for government employers and businesses that would have new overtime payment obligations.
A judge later blocked the rule. The crusade earned him the endorsement of the conservative National Federation of Independent Businesses, but has been fodder for negative Spanish-language ads against him and critics who say it’s depriving 104,000 Nevadans of overtime protection and costing them $8 million a year.
Closer to home, Laxalt’s office mounted a vigorous defense of Nevada’s sweeping Education Savings Account program that allows parents to claim public school funds and steer them toward private school tuition or other qualifying education expenses.
He enlisted superstar lawyer Paul Clement, a former U.S. Solicitor General known for leading 26 states in a challenge of Obamacare.
In the end, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the program’s funding mechanism was unconstitutional. But Laxalt’s office declared victory, saying the funding was a relatively easy fix and the real triumph was that the program was found to be constitutional on questions of separation of church and state.
A veteran himself, the attorney general has sought to carve a niche as a champion for veterans and sexual assault victims. He launched an Office for Military and Legal Assistance, a clearinghouse for lawyers working pro bono to help veterans and military families with their legal problems.
He’s taken up the mantle of clearing a backlog of untested sexual assault evidence kits. Helped by a federal grant that took effect just as he took office, Laxalt’s office has been able to send all but a few hundred of the nearly 8,000 untested rape kits to labs so far and has linked at least 17 arrests to DNA matches identified through the effort.
And he highlights that he created the first Elder Fraud Unit within the attorney general’s office. The project was backed by a federal Office on Violence Against Women grant and funds from a national mortgage fraud settlement Nevada landed after the recession.
Laxalt has not shied from getting involved in political campaigns. He was a strident opponent of Question 1, a measure backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that sought to expand background checks to more gun sales and transfers and appeared in ads opposing the measure.
He’s also received donations from the National Rifle Association and spoken at their major conferences, although he skipped the event this year in the wake of school shootings even though his picture briefly appeared as a featured speaker.
Although proponents of Question 1 eked out a razor-thin win, Laxalt had the last word when his office issued an opinion calling the ballot initiative “unenforceable” — the measure required background checks to be run through a federal database, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it would not allow. In spite of fierce criticism from political opponents that he and Gov. Brian Sandoval did not do enough to implement the voter-approved initiative, a judge later ruled that they made a good faith effort to do so.
Laxalt’s campaign has not answered a question from The Nevada Independent on whether, if elected, he would sign a similar background check bill into law.
He also opposed Question 2, an ultimately successful ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in Nevada. While his office has defended the law, he has offered few clues about his current thinking on the matter; Sisolak is the main beneficiary of marijuana industry donations and recently held a forum for the cannabis industry.
“My impression is (Laxalt) is not a very huge fan of the industry, but I think he also respects Nevada law and the will of the voters,” said Andrew Jolley, president of the Nevada Dispensary Association.
A strong personality
Some political newcomers like to stay quiet, testing the waters before they dive in. That was not the case for the outspoken Sisolak, who was often a thorn in the University of Nevada, Reno’s side in the decade he spent on the Nevada Board of Regents.
“Steve Sisolak of Las Vegas is the new kid on the block … but already he's become the squeaky wheel,” the Las Vegas Sunreported in 1999.
Only a couple of months into his term, Sisolak touched off a debate between UNR and UNLV by suggesting that there was a $3,000-per-student funding gap between the two schools.
Supporters of UNR pointed to a legislative study claiming that the disparity in funding was only $784 dollars, and UNR President Joe Crowley argued that his school needed more funding because of the older buildings it has to maintain. The regents eventually agreed to look into the funding gap and determined that the funding gap was only $534 per student; Crowley claimed victory.
The relationship between Sisolak and Crowley only worsened over the course of Sisolak’s first year as a regent as he continued to press Crowley with questions. At one point, Sisolak declined to attend a UNR fundraiser because he said Crowley swore at him.
When UNR tried to start dropping the “Reno” and call itself the “University of Nevada” in 2004, Sisolak was insistent that the university use the full name. He said that by dropping the Reno the institution was presenting itself as better than UNLV.
"They are equal," Sisolak told the Sun. "One is not a child of the other one, or an offshoot of the other one."
In an attempt to make amends with the Northern Nevada university this election cycle, Sisolak released an ad filmed at UNR and touting his support for the school while serving as a regent.
“This is our state’s first university, right here in Reno,” Sisolak says. “And it’s an economic hub for all of Nevada. That’s why when I served the Board of Regents we invested here in new centers for science, health, and academics.”
But Sisolak didn’t just reserve his criticism for the North. He was a frequent critic of the Nevada State College in Henderson, raising the specter during the process of developing the college that “back-room deals or meetings in the middle of the night” were responsible for moving the project forward so quickly. In 2002, a few months before Nevada State College was set to open, Sisolak and another regent asked that the board review the status of the college and determine whether to continue its operation or terminate it.
While Sisolak was a regent, the board also approved tuition increases, something Laxalt and his Republican supporters have seized on in the campaign. The Republican Governors Association has accused Sisolak in ads of allowing college tuition prices to more than double during the decade he spent as a regent.
Tuition did rise significantly at UNLV and UNR during Sisolak’s tenure as regent, according to a database on “sticker price” tuition costs compiled by the Chronicle for Higher Education.
And Sisolakvoted in favorof subsequent 5 percent in-state tuition increases for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years in 2008. At the time, he defended the increases by saying they were necessary to meet rising education costs.
“I’m the first one who wants to avoid raising tuition but the costs of education are going up, professor salaries are going up,” Sisolak told theSun in 2004.“We’ve got to have a tuition increase that is commensurate with our increase in costs, as long as we do everything to keep costs down.”
After a decade on the Board of Regents, Sisolak decided to take a shot at the Clark County Commission in 2008.
During the race, Sisolak faced questions from his Republican opponent Brian Scroggins about his telemarketing business. Scroggins accused Sisolak of drawing cease-and-desist orders for his telemarketing business and consorting with telemarketing lobbyists who went to prison for various crimes — claims that Sisolak dismissed at the time as “absolutely, categorically false.”
Sisolak, armed with his airport settlement, was also largely able to self-fund his campaign and amassed three times as much campaign cash as his opponent.
In the end, Sisolak bested Scroggins by 1.2 percentage points, or a total of 1,585 votes.
Transitioning to the high-profile commission role, Sisolak positioned himself as a business-friendly Democrat, vocally opposing several proposed tax increases.
Sisolak strongly opposed the More Cops tax increase in 2014, which would have raised the county sales tax by 0.15 percentage points so the county could afford to hire 150 to 200 additional police officers. At the time, Sisolak told KXNT radio that he didn’t believe that former Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie was providing accurate numbers in his effort to promote the tax.
But as the tax increase was folded into a funding package to build a football stadium for the Raiders — a project Sisolak strongly favored — he dropped his resistance to it. Sisolak justified his change in position in light of high-profile acts of terrorism around the world, saying “the situation has changed from a few years ago.”
Sisolak also opposed a teachers union-backed “margins tax” that was on the statewide ballot in 2014 and lost badly. At the time, he told the Review-Journal that struggling small business owners couldn’t afford the taxes and suggested a business tax based on profits and not overall revenue, as the margins tax had proposed. (In 2015, the Legislature eventually passed a similar gross-receipts tax known as the Commerce Tax, which has much lower rates than the margins tax.)
During the recession, Sisolak generally took fiscally conservative positions in opposition to some of his fellow commissioners, supporting layoffs rather than dipping further into the county’s reserves.
“There is nothing else to cut. There is no other place to look. The cupboard’s bare,” he said as county considered more than 500 layoffs. “It’s extremely difficult and concerning … I know we are dealing with people’s lives, careers and families.”
And while Sisolak is a favorite among many labor unions, he’s also clashed with some of them on the County Commission.
For instance, Sisolak butted heads with Clark County firefighters during the economic downturn during a time that the union was seen as too resistant to cut pay and benefits. Contract negotiations eventually and went to arbitration, which favored the county and led to a 2 percent wage reduction.
He also accused firefighters in 2010 of gaming the system by calling in sick when they weren’t ill so their colleagues could cover for them and collect overtime pay for doing so. Sisolak promised an audit of the sick leave policy.
Opponents have characterized him as a bully on the commission and cited a Review-Journal headline that referred to him as a “political bulldozer.” They have also raised questions about the close proximity between his approval of county contracts and the recipients making him campaign donations.
“I worked with Steve,” fellow commissioner Tom Collins wrote in a fundraising email for Laxalt with the subject line “Democrats for Laxalt.” “I saw him in action. His top priorities were always himself, his wallet, and his donors.”
Education, a perennial priority
Both candidates have staked out improving education as their top priority. But their plans to do that have been the subject of many attack ads.
Democrats have pounded Laxalt for promising this summer, and repeating in several ads, that he would add $500 million to schools. Sandoval’s staff has said existing revenue sources could yield about $500 million more than current levels in the next biennium.
Even Sandoval has questioned the promise, saying that the revenue growth has already been more than spoken for by state agencies that have submitted their budget requests to his office. The growing number of people tapping into state services eat up much of the growth, and Sandoval asserted that fulfilling the $500 million promise would require either massive cuts or a tax increase (Laxalt has already promised no tax increases.)
Laxalt has declined to answer questions about the details of his plan and has avoided interviews on the matter. But former Gov. List offered some insight into the promise.
“I had a brief conversation with Adam about that, and his answer was, ‘Look, we’re going to find the money,” List said. “... He simply said, ‘It’s in the back of my mind right now. I know we have to do it.’ He said, ‘When this election is done then we’re going to dig in, and I can’t afford today to spend my time thinking about it or figuring it out just yet, but we will.’”
Meanwhile, Sisolak has offered almost identical, broad-strokes goals — smaller class sizes, more teacher pay, better career and technical training programs — as Laxalt, sans a dollar figure.
The Review-Journal editorial page has criticized him for not releasing plans with as much detail as a trio of Laxalt written platforms on career and technical education, health care and economic development (Sisolak since released a detailed health care platform and had issued an education platform during the primary).
“Laxalt also shows a better command of the details. He’s offered broad changes and in-the-weeds proposals,” the editorial said.
Titus pushed back on that.
“I think Laxalt’s hiding behind the written word,” she said. “Steve, in the meantime, is out there … talking to voters, answering questions, he’s at town halls. … So I don’t think these old white papers that Laxalt’s team’s putting out make any difference.”
Sisolak’s political opponents have launched numerous ads suggesting he wants to raise property taxes, airing video of him telling supporters that “one of the ways we’re going to have to pay for it, and people don’t want to hear it, is property taxes.”
Sisolak has been hard to pin down on the tax issue. In a debate with his primary opponent, he said “everything is on the table” and declined to promise no tax increases. But he has said he does not foresee a need to raise taxes in the immediate future, and has chosen his words carefully when talking about property taxes, which have not rebounded as quickly as the economy overall because of restrictions built into the property tax formula.
Former Clark County Manager Don Burnette wrote an op-ed in the Sun on Friday arguing that “the portrayal of (Sisolak) as a tax-and-spend elected official who is determined to raise property taxes could not be further from the truth.”
“In contrast to the representations made recently, Steve has been ‘vehemently opposed’ to increasing the property tax rate, which has stayed flat during his entire time in office,” Burnette wrote.
Health care attacks ramp up
Nevada’s next governor will also play a critical role in shaping the future of the health-care landscape in the state. Though there are a number of thorny issues the Legislature will likely confront during the next session, much of the campaign rhetoric has centered around the Affordable Care Act’s protections for pre-existing conditions as the country awaits the outcome of a federal lawsuit in Texas that could rule them unconstitutional.
Laxalt was a sharp critic of the federal health-care law during his 2014 campaign for attorney general, calling it “the most flawed piece of major legislation America has ever endured,” but his strong feelings on the Affordable Care Act date back further than that. In 2011, he co-authored a column with DeSantis in which they wrote that “no single act” of Congress in 2009 and 2010 “displayed its members’ indifference to Madisonian constitutionalism more than ObamaCare.”
The two men wrote that the law’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance — a provision effectively nullified by the tax reform legislation Congress passed in December — “affirmatively violates the Constitution” and that that other portions of the law “conflict with the philosophy underlying” the Constitution.
“Opponents of ObamaCare should continue to press the political case for repeal in a way that goes beyond mere dollars and cents,” they wrote. “Repeal is also about preserving an ethic of constitutionalism rooted in limitations on government, political accountability, and equal justice under the law.”
But as Election Day nears, Laxalt has sought to make a distinction between his opposition to the sometimes reviled health-care law as a whole and his support for the law’s protections pre-existing conditions, widely regarded as the most popular provision of the law. As Sisolak has hammered Laxalt on the issue — suggesting that the Republican attorney general would “let insurance companies deny people coverage, just because they have a pre-existing condition” — Laxalt has been equally eager to demonstrate his support for pre-existing conditions.
In late October, Laxalt released an ad featuring his mother talking about how she raised her children as a single mother in spite of her multiple sclerosis.
“When [Sisolak] says my son would deprive you of pre-existing condition coverage, he’s a liar. I am a pre-existing condition,” Michelle Laxalt says.
But Sisolak told the Independent that his campaign has continued to run the ads because he doesn’t believe Laxalt is sincere.
“We have been consistent with where we stand in terms of the expansion of Medicaid and pre-existing conditions,” he said. “Adam has kind of blown with the wind depending what the political pundits and polls say. That’s where he’s going, wherever he thinks he can capture votes.”
For his part, Sisolak has promised to sign a bill vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval during the 2017 legislative session that would incorporate the Affordable Care Act’s protections for pre-existing conditions into law. (In a veto message, Sandoval said that he supported provisions in the bill that would have protected people from being denied coverage from insurance companies but believed the law went too far in other areas.)
Laxalt’s campaign has not answered emailed questions about what he would specifically do to enshrine protections for people with pre-existing conditions or whether he would sign into law the measure vetoed by Sandoval in 2017 that would codify parts of the Affordable Care Act into Nevada law.
The two also differ on abortion. Sisolak has run ads talking with his daughters talking about how they used services from Planned Parenthood, and the group has endorsed him. By contrast, the ardently pro-life Laxalt has an endorsement from anti-abortion rights group Nevada Right to Life.
Laxalt got in hot water the night of his primary victory when asked whether he would look to roll back abortion rights and he answered “we’ll look into it.” Nevada voters enshrined the right to an abortion through the first two trimesters in the state constitution in 1990, and Laxalt’s campaign has since said he has no interest in repealing the provision.
Ads against Sisolak have sought to portray him as a corrupt politician entangled in pay-to-play deals, and contrast him with Laxalt, who wants to “protect Nevada.”
Many use a body double portraying a hunched Sisolak slinking in a field at night. One cites a 2008 story in which KLAS-TV reported Sisolak was “of interest to the FBI Agents and Metro detectives” in an investigation involving an alleged threat made against state Supreme Court candidate (and current Justice) Kris Pickering.
Sisolak's team has gone as far as making an ad countering the claim.
"That attack launched by the Laxalt team is categorically false," said Sisolak campaign spokeswoman Christina Amestoy. "Steve was never the subject of an FBI investigation nor was he ever questioned by the FBI in connection with the case."
His opponents have pointed to a 2010 Review-Journal story that reported a federal judge “chastised” Clark County commissioners — including Sisolak — and said they acted “corruptly” when they awarded a union contractor a valuable highway construction project with a bid $4.6 million higher than a competing non-union builder.
“It’s surprising that a judge would go that far in mischaracterizing an elected official,” Sisolak said after the ruling, which the newspaper reported in early 2010.
But the accusations have gone beyond their jobs and into their personal relationships.
An opposition website, ShadySteve.com, accuses his lawyer of helping him “helped him discredit a teenage girl who accused him of improper behavior.” That refers to accusations from 2012 by Sisolak’s ex-girlfriend, Kathleen Vermillion, who said at the time that he had been uncomfortably familiar with her then-15-year-old daughter.
The two sides have also stoked a feud within the large, extended Laxalt family. As they did in the 2014 campaign, a group of family members submitted an op-ed to the Reno Gazette-Journal recommending voters oppose Laxalt.
“The irony is that while moving to Nevada to satisfy his enormous political ambitions, he has proceeded to oppose others’ rights to come to our state,” they wrote. “In the face of Nevada’s history as a state made of newcomers, including our own immigrant forebears, he has advocated against immigrants as well as against businesses and individuals who have moved here from other states.”
That triggered 22 family members to sign onto an op-ed defending him.
“It was his commitment to principle that drove him to try to do the impossible, and we could not have been prouder of him for it,” they said of his improbable 2014 victory. “He has amassed an incredible record of bipartisan accomplishment that has made Nevadans safer today as a result.”
An expensive contest
Whoever wins the race to be Nevada’s next governor won’t have done so on the cheap. Since the beginning of the calendar year, Sisolak has raised $7.4 million and spent $13.3 million, while Laxalt has brought in $6.2 million and spent $8.7 million.
But third-party groups that are free of contribution limits have far outpaced both candidates in both fundraising and spending in the race. More than two dozen political action committees registered with the Nevada secretary of state’s office reported raising more than $34 million and spending $33.9 million over a 10-month period, primarily in the gubernatorial race.
Sisolak has more on his side. For example, in the four month period between June 8 and Oct. 12, PACs supporting Laxalt raised more than $9.9 million and spent $11.9 million, while those supporting Sisolak raised $15.2 million and spent $13.3 million.
On the Democratic side, Nevada Families First has been the most prolific of any outside group over the four month period between June and October, raising $6.3 million and spending $5.1 million. The PAC’s biggest contributor is the Democratic Governors Association, which transferred more than $3.6 million to it; other top donors include Everytown for Gun Safety, the labor super PACWorking for Working Americans, former Attorney General Eric Holder’sNational Democratic Redistricting Committee, the Service Employees International Union’s political arm, and a business owned by Democratic megadonor Stephen Cloobeck.
The top player on the Republican side has been the RGA Nevada PAC, the local arm of the Republican Governors Association, which has raised $8.7 million and spent $8.8 million over the same four-month period. The RGA’s top contributors in 2016 — the most recent year for which records are available — were the Las Vegas Sands, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Koch Industries.
Democratic groups have run ads highlighting $2.5 million in contributions to Laxalt from entities linked to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, and his support of efforts to stave off an inquiry into whether ExxonMobil downplayed the effects of climate change. The inquiry would have affected companies funded by the Koch brothers, who are considered pariahs in liberal circles.
On the ground
Both sides have mounted aggressive ground games. The Democratic Party and its fabled Reid Machine have gained a reputation over the last several cycles for their ability to turn out massive numbers of voters to the polls, but the Republicans have upped their game this year.
The Republican National Committee, taking a page out of the Obama playbook, built a massive voter data program and landed on the ground in Nevada this cycle in June 2017, earlier than ever before.
Laxalt has paid particular attention to rural Nevada — he scored his 2014 victory by driving up enough votes in the deeply Republican terrain to offset losses in Clark and Washoe counties. He has talked often of his kickoff tour hitting all 17 counties and enlisted a long list of rural county commissioner as supporters; in the last week or so, he’s tweeted photos of himself campaigning in Winnemucca, Yerington and Fallon.
William Kasten, who attended a rally with Vice President Mike Pence in Las Vegas last month, said he supported Laxalt because he thought he was well-qualified and a “decent” man, but it also boils down to balance.
“If the state’s going to have a Democrat-controlled Legislature, I want a Republican governor,” he said. “I want the check and balance in place. In California what we had is … a Democratic supermajority. They didn’t have to ask Republicans for any assistance at all.”
Sisolak, meanwhile, has had a major boost from unions that fund hundreds of canvassers. Groups including the AFL-CIO, which credit the Raiders stadium project that Sisolak championed for a boom of construction jobs, are drawing on a voter registration and turnout strategy that helped Nevada turn blue in 2016 and is viewed as an example by national union leadership.
Sisolak acknowledges he has not campaigned in some of the most rural parts of the state, but he is ubiquitous at trunk-or-treat events, Dia de Los Muertos festivals and union gatherings in the population centers. On Tuesday, Sisolak was in the rec room of a senior apartment complex in East Las Vegas that was decked with cutouts of pumpkins, vampires and a mummy.
He came bearing Winchell’s donuts, and a dozen or so seniors who had gathered to hear him air complaints that were less about big-picture issues like education and more about bus routes, the lack of lighting in the complex, recent gang violence in the area. He steered the conversation to campaign talking points, but not before calling out to an aide in the back to remind him he needed to ask someone named Mike to check on the bus issue.
“It was good to meet him in person. He seemed like a good person, humble,” resident Gilberto Gonzalez, 65, said in Spanish after the visit. “He seems like someone who’s going to be for Nevada, for the community here.”
Laura Soto, 73, didn’t need convincing. She said she had already voted for Sisolak and Democrats down the ticket because she wants better schools for her grandchildren.
“It breaks my heart to know teachers have to have yard sales to buy supplies,” she said. “That’s just not right.”
Independent gubernatorial candidate Ryan Bundy is running a radio ad slamming Republican gubernatorial hopeful Adam Laxalt for supporting “red flag” gun laws.
The ad, which played in a Reno radio market on Friday, attacks Laxalt over his position on the “red flag” gun laws, that allow law enforcement or family members to petition a court to temporarily seize firearms from people who pose serious threats of violence to themselves or others.
Laxalt staunchly opposed the laws as late as 2017 — comparing it to the science fiction film Minority Report in a speech to the NRA’s general convention — but included the concept in a 32-page report on potential enhancements for school safety released by the attorney general’s office in June.
“Adam Laxalt just came out in support of red flag gun laws like they have in California, that allow a social worker or an ex-wife to take away your guns without being convicted of crime,” the ad states. “Good luck getting your guns back from a liberal judge. Call Adam Laxalt and tell him to keep his hands off our guns.”
Ryan Bundy, the son of controversial rancher Cliven Bundy, has raised a little more than $66,000 and spent around $63,000 to far this election cycle. He launched his gubernatorial bid in March two months after a federal judge in Las Vegas dismissed charges against him, his father and his brother Ammon Bundy related to the armed standoff on the family’s ranch in 2014.
Focus: Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak
Who’s paying for it: The Republican Governors Association, a PAC supporting GOP candidates for governor
Size of buy: RGA did not disclose the size of the ad buy
Where’s it running: Statewide
When it starts: Nov. 1
The gist: The ad is a collection of previous attacks made on Sisolak regarding his stances on taxes. In particular, the ad targets a statement Sisolak made to supporters earlier this year where he said, “one of the ways we’re going to have to pay for it, and people don’t want to hear it, is property taxes.”
The ad goes on to list a number of taxes and fees that Sisolak voted to increase during his time on the Clark County Commission and criticize him for doubling student tuition and fees at state universities — another frequent attack on Sisolak — before once again playing tape of Sisolak saying “property taxes.”