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VICTOR JOECKS: Gilbert channels Trump in gubernatorial bid

The parallels between Republican gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert and Donald Trump come easy. But to be successful, he’ll need to convince Republican primary voters that he won’t pull a Sharron Angle.

Like Trump, Gilbert has taken an unorthodox path to seeking executive office. Trump was a celebrity, real estate developer and former Democrat. Gilbert had a successful collegiate and professional boxing career before becoming a personal injury lawyer. He also co-founded a marijuana dispensary in Reno, which was subsequently sold. Not exactly a typical route to the Governor’s Mansion.

Trump and Gilbert are both full of personality. Gilbert’s time as a boxer isn’t just a trophy on his shelf. It’s his persona — as a lawyer and a candidate. His introduction video features him training with his daughter in a boxing ring. He’s branded himself as “The people’s champ.”

It’s not just talk, though. He’s spent much of the past 18 months fighting in court over coronavirus restrictions and mandates. In May 2020, Gilbert and Sigal Chattah, who’s running for attorney general as a Republican, sued Gov. Steve Sisolak over his decision to close churches. That lawsuit was successful after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Sisolak.

Gilbert has also filed lawsuits against school mask mandates and vaccine mandates. That includes a lawsuit he filed Monday seeking to prevent the Clark County School District from enacting its vaccine mandate.

It’s easy to talk like a conservative in the primary. Gilbert has spent months taking action, working some of those lawsuits pro bono, and he achieved results. Republican primary voters will find that appealing, assuming he has enough money to let them know about it.

Gilbert is also unafraid to use Twitter to put his political opponents on blast in a Trump-like manner.

“Hey Nutjob, There’s no emergency. What are you even talking about?” Gilbert tweeted in reply to Sisolak pushing vaccines for children ages 5 to 11.

Gilbert has also savaged fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo. Or as he referred to him on Twitter, “Sanctuary, high crime, October 1 cover up, red-flag-law loving, Bloomberg-bringing Joe Lombardo.” Over text, Gilbert added in a few more jabs at Lombardo — “no personality,” “RINO” and “not smart at all.”

Ring the bell, and let the fight begin.

A segment of Republican primary voters eats up this aggressive rhetoric. It seems as if Gilbert has successfully claimed a “lane” in the primary. He should do especially well in rural Nevada, which could provide 25 percent of primary voters. Many of his supporters are passionate about his candidacy, too.

In this crowded field, a candidate could win with as little as 30 percent of the vote. That makes him a player, especially if he can raise money.

To grow his coalition, however, Gilbert will need to make sure he doesn’t give more pragmatic Republican voters flashbacks to Angle. She was the Republican’s 2010 U.S. Senate nominee after winning a plurality in a heavily contested primary. She turned out to be a terrible candidate and lost to Sen. Harry Reid despite a red wave nationally.

The brash, athletic Gilbert isn’t going to be physically mistaken for Angle. But he is repeating some of her mistakes. One reason Angle lost is that her statements allowed Reid to make the race about her. No doubt, Sisolak would be happy to talk about something other than Nevada’s second-highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate.

Gilbert has thrown his share of misplaced rhetorical roundhouses. He’s called vaccines the “Fauci ouchie.” Almost 90 percent of Nevadans 70 and older have received at least one dose. Fighting vaccine and mask mandates can be a political winner. Downplaying the lifesaving benefits of vaccines for older adults isn’t going to be.

His focus on the 2020 election is also a concern. Regular readers of this column know how seriously I take election integrity. I demonstrated that signature verification is a joke. I wrote on other problems with mail ballots. This included the case of Jill Stokke, a visually impaired woman who claimed someone else returned her ballot and she wasn’t allowed to vote. I reported on the DMV registering a Canadian citizen to vote. I blasted Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske for her office’s unwillingness to investigate thousands of potential cases of voter fraud.

But demonstrating vulnerabilities in Nevada’s election system doesn’t mean Trump won Nevada.

“Actually, Nevada did flip red. They just stole the election and got paid for it,” Gilbert tweeted in March.

Pushing for election integrity, including photo ID, is good strategy. Making unfounded claims about the 2020 election isn’t.

There’s no doubt Gilbert can throw a punch — both in the boxing ring and political arena. But his political success may depend on reducing his vulnerability to obvious counterattacks.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.