Five Republican candidates for Nevada governor debated Wednesday night in Las Vegas.
The top five candidates of 15, as determined by polling, were invited, including former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, businessman Guy Nohra and attorney Joey Gilbert.
Lombardo leads in polls after receiving an endorsement from former President Donald Trump last month. Lombardo did not receive the Nevada Republican Party’s endorsement, however, which went to Gilbert.
Gilbert rose to prominence after filing lawsuits against the state of Nevada over COVID-19 lockdown regulations. The Reno-based former boxer is the most right-wing of the field of candidates and said he is proud to have been present on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Heller is the only candidate in the primary to have previously won election to statewide office. He was elected senator in 2012 after serving three terms in the House and three terms as Nevada secretary of state. Heller lost his 2018 Senate re-election campaign to Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen.
Lee, who was registered as a Democrat until last year, has served as North Las Vegas mayor since 2013 after being ousted from the state Senate by a progressive Democrat. He is eligible to run for re-election as mayor but decided to run for governor instead.
The debate was moderated by KLAS-TV, Channel 8 anchor Denise Valdez and reporter Vanessa Murphy as well as Las Vegas Review-Journal government and politics editor Steve Sebelius.
After the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and 2 adults were killed Tuesday, all candidates expressed their condolences. All also emphasized that the mass shooting problem in this country is one of mental health, not gun control. No candidate said that gun control measure would be a good idea. To prevent mass shootings, Gilbert and Nohra said they want more security on school campuses and greater access to guns. Lombardo said he supports public-private partnerships to increase mental health resources in education and law enforcement.
Gilbert, Heller and Lee each supported breaking up the Clark County School District into smaller districts to give school leaders and residents more control over their schools. Lee wants North Las Vegas to have its own district. He also encouraged competition among school districts and private schools with school choice voucher programs. Gilbert also lamented the amount of waste he believes is present in Nevada public schools, and said that as governor he would privatize certain public school services in order to free funds to better support teachers.
Inflation and the economy
Faced with rising costs because of inflation, candidates agreed that as governor they would put pressure on federal leaders to curb stimulus they believe is causing inflation. Gilbert wants to fight Washington, D.C., on economics, calling himself “the Ron DeSantis of the West,” referencing Florida’s governor who has been openly against actions of President Joe Biden’s administration. Heller emphasized lowering taxes as part of his economic plan. He committed to eliminating the gas tax after $4 per gallon and to reduce the state sales tax equivalent to inflation, about 8 percent. Lombardo attacked Gov. Steve Sisolak’s shutdowns because of COVID-19, which he and other candidates blamed for rising costs.
“I was the author of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (of 2017) when I was back in Washington, D.C., and the purpose of that was to spur economic growth, and it did,” Heller said. “We can do the same thing here in the state of Nevada, which has never been tried … We’re going to spur economic growth like we’ve never seen before.”
As the Supreme Court is expected to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision this summer, which guarantees access to abortion care in the country, all candidates affirmed their personal beliefs as being anti-abortion. However, Gilbert was clear that Nevada law is currently abortion-rights, and that Nevadans should choose what new state policy should be. Lombardo said he would consider more regulation on abortion providers in Nevada. Heller called both Gilbert and Lombardo “pro-choice” because of their comments — which both denied — and said that his track record on voting for anti-abortion Supreme Court justices while in the Senate shows that he is a “proven conservative.” Heller said he would do “whatever it takes” to overturn Nevada’s current law on abortion, which bans the procedure after 24 weeks. Lee said he would push to pass a “heartbeat bill” in Nevada, which would ban abortion from the point a heartbeat can be detected in a fetus, which can be as early as six weeks.
“Nevada is a pro-choice state,” Gilbert said. “I would love to see no abortion. But at the end of the day, that’s not what a governor gets to do. … I absolutely would steer Nevada toward a pro-life state.”
Asked whether they would send Nevada National Guardsmen to the border to help keep it secure, all candidates except Lombardo committed to sending the guard. Lombardo claimed that costs of such an operation would be excessive, citing his law enforcement experience. Heller and Gilbert attacked Lombardo’s record on immigration, claiming that Lombardo made Clark County into a “sanctuary” jurisdiction, which Lombardo vehemently denied. Heller said that Lombardo is “bringing illegal immigrants into the state and spreading them across the state.” Lombardo defended his record, claiming that an ACLU lawsuit has hampered his department’s ability to catch undocumented immigrants and that the federal government is largely to blame for them in Clark County.
As Lake Mead and Lake Powell face all-time low water levels, candiates were asked how they would face the state’s water supply crisis. Heller and Lombardo want to renegotiate the Colorado River Compact, which regulates how much water each state along the Colorado River can use. They and other candidates claim that California is getting too much water and that Nevada’s share must be increased. Candidates also proposed investment into new technologies and methods to recover water, like desalination in California. Nohra half-jokingly suggested transporting Mississippi River floodwater to the state. “Let’s give it a try. We’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. For Gilbert, water conservation focuses on irrigation and rural Nevada, which can take advantage of new technology to use less water and save more for cities, he said.
During the section of each candidate’s individual questions, Nohra’s inexperience in politics was questioned. He said that venture capitalists are even harder to deal with than politicians and that he is not concerned about working with a likely Democratic state Legislature.
Lombardo doubled down on his defense of his former undersheriff, Kevin McMahill, whom he has endorsed to replace him this year. McMahill was accused by a woman of sexual misconduct while he was early in his career, in 1995, with the woman claiming he asked her to partially undress for him at a traffic stop.
Gilbert was questioned on his claim that the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting was in some way a cover-up. Gilbert backed down on his claim of a cover-up but said that as governor he would try to bring more transparency into how the investigation was performed. Lombardo, who was part of the investigation, lashed back at Gilbert.
“For people to impune my officers’ integrity and the investigation associated with that is ridiculous,” Lombardo said. “I stand by them in all aspects of that investigation.”
Heller denied that he flip-flopped on the issue of abortion rights during his political career. He was quoted saying he would support funding Planned Parenthood in 2017, but later stated that he never would. He told the Review-Journal that he was pro-choice in 2006, but said he was “more libertarian at the time” and has changed his position. He clarified that he is pro-life now and that he believes overturning the Roe v. Wade decision is a good thing.
Lee stated that he privately condemned a concealed carry permit trainer’s racist presentation, and that he never addressed the issue publicly because “it’s not my job to put him out of business,” he said.
During the hourlong debate, most of the focus was on attacking front-runner Lombardo and Sisolak. Heller was on the offensive the most, arguing with Lombardo back and forth multiple times and claiming that Lombardo is “friends” with Sisolak. During his closing remarks, Lombardo derided the attacks of his opponents.
“For all practical purposes, this primary is over,” he said. “(These attacks) are all bogus, they’re not working … because I’m leading in all the polls. I have the most money associated with a successful campaign, I have the endorsement of President Donald Trump and I have the endorsement of 16 of 17 sheriffs.”
Lombardo declined to take questions after the debate.
The Nevada primary is on June 14, and early voting begins May 28. Read the Review-Journal’s 2022 voter guide here.
Contact Nick Robertson at [email protected] Follow @NickRobertsonSU on Twitter.