June 14

By Louis Jacobson

Nevada’s primaries on June 14 will put the national spotlight on a state that has been narrowly divided in recent elections, but where the two parties are poles apart ideologically. And if Republicans can surf a midterm wave and win races up and down the ballot, Nevada could become one of the states to see a stark about-face in policy.

Nevada, a state that has been consistently close in presidential races, has been known for feast-or-famine patterns during midterm elections.

In 2014, Republicans swept every statewide race in Nevada and flipped both chambers of the state legislature. In the next midterm election, 2018, it was the Democrats who won every statewide race except for secretary of state, and they held both of the state’s legislative chambers, which the party had already flipped in 2016. In 2018, Democrats also ousted a Republican from a U.S. Senate seat.

Heading into 2022, this has left Democrats in near-exclusive control of Nevada’s government – leaving them open to voters’ ire. Historically, the party that controls the White House is at a disadvantage in midterm elections, and with Joe Biden now in office, that means Democrats – including those in Nevada – will be in the hot seat this fall.

Republican candidates in Nevada, however, are not catering to the potentially persuadable middle of the electorate, at least not yet. Even the primary candidates who are not officially endorsed by former President Donald Trump are seeking to align themselves with his wing of the party, typically highlighting their views on illegal immigration, gun rights, abortion, and “critical race theory” in schools.

U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general who is the GOP primary frontrunner according to polls, took a leading role in Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory in the state, making allegations of fraud that were later debunked. Leading GOP candidates for other offices have echoed Laxalt’s allegations about election irregularities, including Jim Marchant, who’s a leading GOP candidate for secretary of state, the position that oversees elections. Marchant has received support from Mike Lindell, a prominent election denier and CEO of MyPillow.

Meanwhile, Michele Fiore, a Las Vegas city councilwoman and a leading GOP candidate for state treasurer, has defined her image around assault rifles. And Sigal Chattah, a top GOP contender for attorney general, has taken heat for some of her comments, including a leaked text message saying that the incumbent attorney general, Democrat Aaron Ford, “should be hanging from a (expletive) crane.” (Ford is Black.)

The Democrats, by contrast, have generally taken a less outspoken approach, in part because they are currently holding office and partly because their party has many fewer primaries that could inflame intra-party differences. Democrats only have primaries for lieutenant governor (in which the incumbent was appointed to the post and is running for it for the first time) and for one U.S. House seat.

Democrats are hoping that their relatively low-key approach will contrast favorably with the more extreme positions and rhetoric coming from most GOP candidates.

In the meantime, the expectation of competitive general elections for three of Nevada’s four U.S. House seats has raised the midterm stakes for the Democrats, and for this, the party has only itself to blame. Earlier this year, Gov. Steve Sisolak closed the the once-every-10-years redistricting process by signing a re-map that took voters from the state’s bluest district, currently held by Rep. Dina Titus, and sprinkled them into two neighboring districts where Democrats had only narrowly been in the lead.

This gave Democrats the possibility of winning each of the three districts, but not enough of an edge to assure that the party could win them all in a year where they are beset by fierce political headwinds, such as this year. The end result is that three of the state’s four House seats are expected to be highly competitive in November’s general election. (The fourth district was and remains solidly Republican.)

Democrats nationally are hopeful that their pro-abortion-rights rank-and-file might be energized to vote by a possible overturning of Roe v. Wade. However, even if that Democratic energy materializes and helps blunt the pro-Republican tilt of the midterms, Democrats may not see its impact in Nevada. That’s because the state is unusual among swing states; state law makes abortion rights relatively secure even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Another concern for Democrats is that Nevada has one of the most transient populations of any state. Many newcomers to the state know little about the state’s current political leadership, reducing the power of incumbency.

Here’s a rundown of the key races on the primary ballot in Nevada:

U.S. Senate

Incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat making her first reelection bid, is one of the Democrats’ most endangered senators running this year – not so much from her record in office but rather from the difficult election environment facing her party.

In the Republican primary, Laxalt – whose grandfather was Paul Laxalt, a Nevada governor and senator from the 1960s to the 1980s – faces Afghanistan War veteran Sam Brown, who experienced severe burns after being struck by an improvised explosive device. Both Laxalt and Brown have taken similarly conservative stances, but Laxalt received early endorsements from Republican establishment figures – including Trump, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida – while Brown has run a more outsider-oriented campaign that has won him the support of the Nevada Republican Party.

Laxalt has led Brown by double digits in recent primary polls, while general election polls have found Cortez Masto either comfortably ahead or in a tight race against either of the GOP hopefuls. However, no public poll has shown Cortez Masto with 50% of the vote, which is considered a warning sign for any incumbent.

Governor

Sisolak has faced a challenging first term in office, primarily due to the coronavirus pandemic and its outsized impact on Nevada’s tourism-based economy. More than a dozen Republicans are seeking to oust Sisolak, with five attracting the most attention.

The leading Republican in the race is Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who benefits from Trump’s endorsement, the GOP field’s biggest war chest, and a familiarity among voters in the populous Las Vegas metropolitan area, which could help keep down Sisolak’s electoral performance in his own home area.

Lombardo, who occupies an officially nonpartisan office, also hasn’t aggressively criticized the state’s handling of the 2020 election, unlike many other Republicans running this year. This could make him an acceptable option for voters unhappy with Sisolak’s performance.

Other leading Republican candidates for governor include attorney and former boxer Joey Gilbert, who has received the state party endorsement; former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller; North Las Vegas mayor and former Democrat John Lee; and venture capitalist Guy Nohra.

None of the other competitors are making as much of a splash as Lombardo, however. A Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll from June found Lombardo leading Gilbert, his closest primary competitor, by 13 points.

As for the general election, Sisolak has led in recent polls by double digits, but like Cortez Masto, has usually not exceeded 50% support, giving Republicans hope for a victory.

Lieutenant governor

Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead, a Democrat, was appointed to the office when Kate Marshall resigned to become senior adviser on governors within the Biden White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Prior to her appointment by Sisolak, Burkhead spent a quarter century as a teacher and administrator in the Clark County public schools.

Because she has never won a race for elected office before, Cano Burkhead is being challenged by both Democrats and Republicans in this year’s elections.

The two Democrats running in the primary are Debra March, the former mayor of Henderson who has a background in land-use planning and real estate, and Kimi Cole, a rural Democratic activist who is running to become the first openly transgender politician in the nation to win statewide elected office. Despite not being the incumbent, March has led the Democratic field in fundraising.

The biggest names in the GOP primary are former state Treasurer Dan Schwartz; Las Vegas City Council member and former police captain Stavros Anthony; and banker and winery operator John Miller. In the June Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll, Anthony got 19%, ahead of Miller and Schwartz with 9% each, but 42% of respondents said they were unsure.

Secretary of state

The position of secretary of state – a crucial one in Nevada, as elsewhere, due to today’s intense spotlight on election integrity – is coming open this year in Nevada because Republican incumbent Barbara Cegavske is term-limited.

Cegavske, the only Republican statewide office holder in Nevada over the past four years, played a crucial role in affirming the validity of the state’s 2020 election results, even though Biden’s win went against her own party’s nominee. (In fact, the state party organization censured her for her acceptance of the election results.)

Many of the GOP candidates running to succeed Cegavske have outspokenly advanced claims of election fraud, beginning with Marchant, who has urged eliminating Dominion voting machines, a brand that Trump allies have baselessly accused of being faulty; limiting voting to a single day in a state where early, in-person voting is common and widely used; and ending mail balloting, Vice reported.

Other GOP candidates for secretary of state include former state Sen. and heavily self-funding real estate developer Jesse Haw; Kristopher Dahir, a Sparks City Council member; Gerard Ramalho, a retired news anchor; and Richard Scotti, a former Clark County District Court judge. Dahir has positioned himself furthest from Marchant, publicly criticizing his rival for saying he wouldn’t have certified the 2020 election results.

A June Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll found Marchant and Haw leading the GOP field, with 21% each, but with 36% of likely Republican voters unsure who they would vote for. (Another 10% of respondents said they would choose “none of these candidates,” which is a valid ballot option in Nevada.)

The Democratic field is far less splintered, with only one major candidate: Cisco Aguilar, a former chair of the Nevada Athletic Commission and a onetime congressional aide. In the topsy-turvy world of contemporary election-administration politics, Aguilar has praised Cegavske’s handling of the 2020 election, even though they are from different parties.

Attorney general

Ford, the Democratic incumbent, is well-funded, is well known from representing a metro Las Vegas district in the legislature, and doesn’t have a primary to speak of. Still, he won only narrowly in the Democratic wave year of 2018, so the GOP senses vulnerability.

Two Republicans are running to take him on. One, Chattah, came to public attention for suing the state over COVID restrictions; she won one case but lost the others. The other GOP candidate, Tisha Black, is a lawyer and former president of the Nevada Cannabis Association. Black has taken a more non-confrontational approach than Chattah; her rival has fired back that Black is no better than a Democrat.

State treasurer

As with the race for attorney general, the contest for state treasurer features a Democratic incumbent without a serious intra-party challenger and two Republicans, one of whom is known for being outspoken.

The Democratic incumbent is Zach Conine, a graduate of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas law school. Prior to being elected to public office, Conine worked in senior roles at the Golden Nugget Las Vegas and other private-sector companies.

Fiore, meanwhile, had initially sought the gubernatorial nomination this year, but she dropped back to the less-crowded race for treasurer instead. She has held public office as a Las Vegas City Council member and as a member of the state Assembly. Earlier, she had been an actress, film producer and businesswoman. Fiore is perhaps best known for running a campaign ad in which she shoots bottles labeled for conservative targets such as critical race theory and vaccine mandates.

Fiore’s lower-key opponent is businessman Manny Kess, who founded and owns a Las Vegas-based event agency.

Both Chattah in the attorney general’s race and Fiore in the treasurer’s race could struggle to win support from independents or crossover Democrats. However, if the election environment is poor enough for Democrats, these Republicans could be swept into office.

State controller

The race for state controller is the only statewide or federal race on Nevada’s 2022 primary ballot in which each party has essentially one candidate. The seat is open due to the impending retirement of Democrat Catherine Byrne.

The expected Democratic nominee is former state Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel. She had initially planned to run for secretary of state but opted for the controller’s race instead, enabling Democrats to avoid a contested primary. Spiegel has had a long career in business, including with American Express and the Weather Channel.

The Republican, state Assemblyman Andy Matthews, previously worked for a conservative advocacy group following a career in sports journalism. The general election should be competitive.

Congressional District 1

In its former incarnation, Titus’ 1st district was not especially competitive between the parties; she has managed to hold it without fail for a decade. But the new redistricting map, much to Titus’ chagrin, has given away swathes of Democratic precincts from her district to neighboring ones. The 1st district now spreads east and south of Las Vegas into more Republican areas, including Boulder City, Henderson and more rural areas.

While the district on balance still leans Democratic, it is much closer between the parties than it was under the previous decade’s lines. Biden would have won the district under the new lines by 9 points, compared to 25 under the old lines. While 9 points would give Titus a clear edge in a neutral or pro-Democratic election cycle, it’s more borderline in a cycle that’s shaping up to be a good one for Republicans.

Complicating Titus’ challenge is that she is facing another Democrat in the primary: Amy Vilela, a more progressive candidate aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Titus’ incumbency and fundraising advantage gives her an edge over Vilela, but a Titus victory is not a certainty.

Four prominent Republicans are seeking the nomination: Former Rep. Cresent Hardy; former Latinos for Trump leader Carolina Serrano; pro-Trump activist David Brog, who is executive director of a group that fights antisemitism on college campuses; and veteran and financial planner Mark Robertson. The state GOP organization and Laxalt have both endorsed Serrano.

Congressional District 2

This heavily rural district in the northern part of the state won’t be competitive in the general election – it is solidly Republican – but incumbent Rep. Mark Amodei, who has represented the district since 2011, is facing primary challenges, notably from Douglas County Commissioner Danny Tarkanian and professional poker player Brian Nadell.

Tarkanian, the son of the late UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2012, 2016 and 2018. Tarkanian has attacked Amodei as being insufficiently conservative, but Amodei has been endorsed by the state party and the National Rifle Association. Amodei also has a large fundraising advantage and is considered the favorite.

Congressional District 3

The shift of Democratic voters from the 1st district to the 3rd due to redistricting has given Democrats some breathing room in the 3rd, turning a district nearly evenly divided between the parties to one with a modest Democratic lean. The re-map removed GOP-leaning Boulder City and replaced it with heavily Democratic areas of Las Vegas.

Still, the net changes are likely not enough to leave Democrats feeling overly confident in a pro-Republican environment like this year.

The incumbent, Democratic Rep. Susie Lee, has held the seat since 2018, although she won only a narrow reelection in 2020. Previously, Lee headed the nonprofit group Communities in Schools of Nevada. She has some family money and has easily outpaced her Republican rivals in fundraising.

The GOP field includes five candidates: attorney April Becker, real estate broker Al Goldberg, contractor John Kovacs, attorney Noah Malgeri, and former UNLV machine shop manager Clark Bossert. None has won political office in Nevada before, and all have aligned themselves with Trump. This could be an obstacle for a general-election candidate in a battleground district, even in a Republican year.

Becker has won the endorsement of the state GOP, and she has a fundraising lead. Kovacs and Malgieri are largely self-funding their campaigns and are positioning themselves as political outsiders.

Congressional District 4

Most of the population in the 4th district is concentrated in the Las Vegas area, and more than half of the district’s voting-age population is composed of people of color, according to the Nevada Independent. However, the 4th also includes large swaths of conservative rural territory.

On balance, the district leans Democratic, but incumbent Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford will not have a glide path to reelection.

Horsford, then the state Senate majority leader, won the seat in 2012, defeating Tarkanian and becoming the state’s first-ever Black member of Congress. But Horsford lost his seat in the 2014 GOP wave. Democrat Ruben Kihuen won it back in 2016, but he declined to run for another term amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Horsford ran again in 2018, won, and was reelected in 2020, defeating Marchant. In the House, he serves as the first vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. However, Horsford has been hit by revelations of an extramarital affair, an issue his would-be GOP challengers have already raised.

Meanwhile, the three-candidate GOP field includes state Assemblywoman and former Mesquite City Council member Annie Black, insurance executive Sam Peters, and Chance Bonaventura, the chief of staff to Fiore.

Peters has raised the most money in the GOP field (though well behind Horsford). However, the GOP establishment has generally backed Black, and she can seek grassroots GOP appeal by touting her presence in the crowd at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Black did not enter the Capitol itself that day.)

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