RENO — Here’s the back-of-the-napkin political calculus on Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo’s run for Nevada governor: A well-known center-right Republican, a strong performer in the state’s heavily Democratic population center, with solid law enforcement chops and a nuanced view of gun rights, who could ride resentment over COVID-19 privations and single-party rule in Carson City into office.
The hurdles: A likely rightward-leaning Republican primary, raising money in a crowded field against a well-funded incumbent, winning over his party from more conservative aspirants, and gaining traction with voters amid a rapidly recovering economy likely to be supercharged by billions in COVID-19 aid from the federal government.
The 58-year-old sheriff, on a get-to-know-you and fundraising tour through northern Nevada this week following his formal campaign announcement in Las Vegas Monday, seems clear-eyed on the opportunities and challenges.
His name recognition, borne out of tragedy – the intense focus on Las Vegas in the aftermath of the nation’s deadliest mass shooting on Oct. 1, 2017 – still leaves him with a basic “math problem” in the race, as he told a group of somewhat wary Republicans sniffing him out in a Reno restaurant Monday evening.
“There are a lot of nuances to political campaigns, and one of them most important one is probably name ID, and I believe I have a very robust name ID in Southern Nevada,” he said in a sit down interview the next day. “So move that up north: I believe I have great name ID from my performance, you know, in particular to 1 October, in Northern Nevada. And that is the reason why I’m up here now, so I can make sure that people know who I am moving forward.
“But let’s go back to the math problem,” he continued, saying state voter registration “has basically turned on its head in the last 12 months.”
On that score he has a point: While overall voter registration is up more than 7 percent in the last year, according to county records compiled by the Secretary of State’s office, Republicans statewide have gained 3.4 percent, Democrats have lost 1 percent, and unaffiliated voters have jumped 19 percent. The statewide changes are similarly reflected in Clark County. Democrats still hold a 100,000 statewide enrollment edge, but that’s down 27,000 from a year ago; 20,000 of that drop is in Clark County.
The independents “are rearing their heads,” Lombardo said. “And I believe they’re more center right than most of them.”
Reason for running
But why run in the first place? Lombardo has 33 years in law enforcement, the last seven at the helm of the 5,700-person Metropolitan Police Department. He won the non-partisan office in a close race his first time out, in 2014, and more easily four years later.
He cites two main reasons for the governor’s race, starting with criticism of how Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak — the former Clark County Commission chair with whom Lombardo stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the aftermath of 1 October — has handled the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I believe Gov. Sisolak would probably say, ‘Well, I had to make hard decisions, I had to shut down the mother’s milk of our economy, the casino environment.’ And I say, yeah, but in my opinion, that was the easy decision,” he said. As the pandemic wore on, other state — Lombardo cites Florida, Texas and South Dakota – imposed narrower restrictions “in a more targeted way versus a global way,” and relaxed them sooner.
Lombardo is particularly critical of school closings imposed to curb the potential spread and said Sisolak was “picking the winners and losers and changing the goalposts” during the pandemic. Though Sisolak formed a panel of medical and logistics experts to guide decisions on the state’s response, Lombardo said the governor was not guided by science that could have “allowed the economy to open sooner rather than later.”
Black Lives Matter response
Lombardo also cites the governor’s response to protests against police violence last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May at the hands of a now-convicted police officer. Protests in Las Vegas led to the shooting of a now-paralyzed Metro officer and the fatal police shooting of an armed civilian elsewhere the same night.
In the aftermath of the shootings, Sisolak walked a political tightrope, decrying the violence but defending protesters’ rights to demonstrate peacefully and acknowledging “systemic racism and injustices” experienced by minority communities. He said law enforcement had a critical role to play in healing the community, adding a call to “weed out the bad officers who tarnish the reputation of your profession through their bad acts.”
Lombardo heard it as an indictment of the department for systemic racism that demanded further investigation.
“That was very disappointing to me, for him to make a global statement like that,” he said.
‘Single party rule’
Later last summer, in the second of two special sessions, the Democrat-controlled Legislature enacted a series of election and criminal justice changes that didn’t sit well with Lombardo. The trend of those reforms, generally aimed at expanding ballot access and limiting certain police powers, continued in the 2021 regular session.
The election reforms in particular – permanent universal mail-in balloting chief among them – have been decried by Republicans who continue to cite the as-yet-unseen threat of voter fraud.
Asked again about the oft-confirmed accuracy of the 2020 election in Nevada – he bobbled an answer to the question Monday – Lombardo said he “didn’t see any evidence” of fraud. He added that state Republicans, who with President Donald Trump’s campaign brought numerous unsuccessful challenges to outcome, had any evidence, “I would ask them to bring it forward.”
The 2020 election results aside, passage of universal mail-in balloting and other reforms Democrats pushed through over Republican objections leads Lombardo to decry “single-party rule” at the state level. Democrats in Nevada hold the governor’s office, both houses of the Legislature, six of seven statewide offices, both U.S. Senate seats and three of four House seats.
“I’ve been a lifetime Republican,” Lombardo said. “And I was just frustrated with the decisions that were coming out of Carson City, both in the economy and law enforcement space. And I believe there needs to be a significant change to address that.”
Possible primary first
While a center-right Republican might have a better chance in a general election – think Sisolak’s popular predecessor Brian Sandoval – how would that candidate fare in a likely Republican primary, which would lean farther right? No candidate is truly official pending the filing deadline next March, but other Republicans who have announced for the race include former Democrat North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, who switched to the Republican party in April, and Reno lawyer Joey Gilbert, a former professional boxer and right-wing firebrand who fought pandemic restrictions in court and was present the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.
Other potential candidates include the oft-mentioned Mark Amodei, the four-term Republican congressman from the north, and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, along with a couple of Nevada businessmen exploring first-time office bids.
Lombardo, whose current office is elective but non-partisan, says he won’t reinvent himself to cater to a more conservative GOP electorate.
“I’m not a politician, you know, I’m a sheriff. I’m a career law enforcement guy and I’m not gonna pander,” he said. “I’m not going to acquiesce my ethical beliefs or how I feel I would be most successful in being the governor of the state of Nevada.”
That said, his early campaign statements draw on Republican talking points – bugaboos in some cases – including critical race theory, the study of systemic racism in society that Lombardo defined as “looking backwards” at white privilege.
His first campaign video highlights images of nationally-known liberal-progressive Democrats such as U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, decries calls to “defund the police,” and suggests without mentioning Sisolak by name that the governor was more “focused on the rights of the criminals” in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and supported “socialist policies.”
Lombardo said he would accept an endorsement from former President Trump but not at the expense of his convictions, pledged to reject any tax increase sent his way, opposed mail-in balloting that makes it “easy to cheat” and supports tighter voter ID rules.
He backs the expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment embraced by gun owners, including ownership of assault rifles, and notes that he has carried a weapon for most of his career. But his support is tempered by an emphasis on responsible gun ownership, and he backs universal background checks and limits on magazine sizes. The gunman in the 1 October shooting, he notes, had 52 100-round magazines left when police entered his hotel room. The gunman had taken his own life.
He said he opposed as unnecessary two gun bills from the 2021 session, one outlawing hard-to-trace “ghost guns” assembled from kits and that lack serial numbers, and the other giving casinos a direct line to police on enforcing gun restrictions on their property. The former passed, the latter failed.
Asked for more on legislative matters, Lombardo stayed mostly in the realm of law enforcement, calling out what he saw as a “significant push, especially in the 2019 session, towards felons’ rights” that “went too far,” impacting police officers and the nature of policing, and leading to higher crime, including in his jurisdiction.
On the mining tax increase that will funnel hundreds of millions more dollars to education, he said there was “always another way” instead of raising taxes, repeated his no-new-tax pledge. He said the state’s tax structure is sound and needs time to prosper.
“We don’t want to make decisions on the heels of a pandemic, you know?” he said, adding later: “I personally believe there’s fluff available in any government.”
The governor’s campaign has thus far declined to respond to attacks and critiques from would-be Republican opponents, with state Democrats and the Democratic Governor’s Association taking the lead in what remains an early contest with few hard targets.
Both Democratic groups have rapped Lombardo for early-days flubs on declaring his candidacy, articulating a rationale for running and his goals if elected , and for embarking on a statewide campaign tour amid the rise in Clark County crime.
Sisolak, in mid June, noted that he and Lombardo “have been close friends for years” and that 1 October “really brought us closer together.” If Lombardo is the Republican nominee, he said, “I’m looking forward to an enthusiastic, spirited campaign and we’ll get on with it.”
Besides Reno, Lombardo has northern Nevada stops planned this week in Carson City on Wednesday, followed by Winnemucca, Elko and Ely.