Sheriff Joe Lombardo hasn’t won the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but he’s as close as you can be in January.
Lombardo raised $3.1 million last year. He has more than $2.6 million cash on hand. That’s not all. A pro-Lombardo Super PAC raised $2.3 million last year as well. That’s $5.4 million backing the Clark County sheriff.
There are five other major candidates: North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, businessman Guy Nohra, former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and former boxer Joey Gilbert. Combined they raised $4.5 million.
If you took away personal money, that figure would drop by more than half. Lee received a $1 million loan from his wife. Nohra put in $1.2 million. Heller lists a $100,000 personal loan. Personal money spends just as well as donor money, but for most candidates, it’s not a renewable resource.
The cash-on-hand numbers look even bleaker for those challenging Lombardo. They have just $1.9 million left.
Paying this much attention to money may seem crass. Shouldn’t voters evaluate candidates on their merits? Perhaps they “should,” but many don’t. Or their research is heavily influenced by ads. There’s a reason companies spend hundreds of billions annually on advertisements.
Money alone isn’t enough, of course. History is littered with wealthy candidates whose personal fortunes didn’t translate into electoral success. Cough, Mike Bloomberg, cough. Having high name ID and a base of supporters helps.
Once again, Lombardo is in an enviable position. Lombardo twice won election as Clark County sheriff. A poll from Lombardo’s Super PAC put his name ID at 91 percent among Republican voters. Aside from Heller, that was far better than the other candidates. Heller’s off-again, on-again relationship with Donald Trump and reputation for flip-flopping will hurt his candidacy.
More significantly, that poll showed that Lombardo had a 37 to 19 percent lead over Heller. The other candidates were in the single digits. At this point, I think it’s more likely that Heller finishes below 10 percent than above 20 percent.
Heller’s weakness is actually bad for the other candidates. Their best chance of breaking through is Lombardo and Heller rhetorically hammering each other, leaving voters looking for an alternative. Lombardo has weaknesses that could hurt him in a primary, especially on firearms.
It’s also not clear how conservative Lombardo is more broadly. He could be a RINO like former Gov. Brian Sandoval was. Or he could be a steadfast, albeit soft-spoken, advocate for school choice and fighting critical race theory. It’s an open question how committed he’ll be to issues such as that once the primary is over.
But without well-funded opponents, it’s unlikely Republican voters will look for alternatives to Lombardo. The wildcard is Nohra, who is worth several hundred million dollars. He certainly portrays confidence, but it’s unclear how much money he’s willing to dump into the race. Or perhaps Gov. Steve Sisolak — who has plenty of campaign cash — will try to interfere in the Republican primary to hurt Lombardo.
Running for office requires more than a little hubris. That’s why you can expect most current candidates to continue their campaigns despite the long odds. But they’d be better off switching to races down ballot.