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A tale of two announcements

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

The new political world has been quite problematic for purveyors of conventional wisdom (looks in mirror, points at self).

But even those of us in The Pundits Club of America who get more right than wrong have to wonder on the eve of two gubernatorial announcements whether any conventions still matter.

Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in political history in 2014 and won in a most unconventional way, is about to declare for the highest office in a state where he has lived for about six years and been in politics for about three. And…he is the favorite.

Democratic Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, an unreconstructed and unabashed liberal, is about to announce for the same office from a place that is less a launching pad than a funeral pyre for higher ambitions. And…she could win, especially the primary.

Laxalt is announcing his candidacy with a series of events, including a tour through rural Nevada. He accomplished a truly remarkable feat in 2014 by losing both urban counties to then-Secretary of State Ross Miller but winning the 15 counties in between by enough of a margin to make up for the metro losses. That does not happen.

The attorney general also has been true to his campaign word to go after what he sees as federal overreach, and his courtship of the right has revealed him to be precociously skilled at ascending in no time to become the state’s conservative darling.

Laxalt has cornered the rightie market so well that he scotched Sen. Dean  Heller’s dream of coming home to run for governor and forced Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison to reconsider the race and retire instead. And he’s not even 40 yet.

Laxalt’s announcement will be fascinating because he is not moderate Gov. Brian Sandoval’s kind of guy….at all. Most prominent Republicans will support him, and would-be lieutenant governor, Michael Roberson, will Velcro himself to Laxalt to win the state’s least important office.

Laxalt’s biggest asset, though, and perhaps his biggest liability are the same person: Sheldon Adelson. Adelson has a bottomless pool of money to help Laxalt swat away Treasurer Dan Schwartz in the primary – ads have already started – and Adelson’s main lobbyists are inside the Laxalt campaign. And, I have heard, Adelson also owns a newspaper, which could be helpful.

Adelson, though, also is the source of the one major blemish on Laxalt’s tenure, which was the attorney general’s clandestine attempt to get the state to intervene in a costly lawsuit on the Las Vegas Sands chairman’s behalf. That caused the state’s well-respected top gaming regulator to surreptitiously tape Laxalt, a story which surely will be replayed in campaign ads next year.

No one with a triple-digit IQ who is not a blind Laxalt partisan or has his check signed by Adelson believes the attorney general was doing any job rather than the chairman’s bidding. It could be a devastating issue for swing voters.

But this is where this race gets very interesting.

I think Laxalt is the favorite mostly because of his political skills and Adelson’s money. But assuming he defeats Schwartz, who will be making allegations the Democrats will relish, Laxalt will face either Giunchigliani or her colleague, Steve Sisolak, who will both have to carry all the baggage being a county commissioner brings.

That is: If you are in local government, it is easy to use campaign contributions to portray either the reality or perception of pay-to-play. There are so many votes on issues important to power players that it is virtually inescapable.

Might Laxalt be able to use that to inoculate himself on the Adelson issue or to at least muddy the waters? Perhaps. (Sisolak also has taken substantial contributions from Adelson, so he can’t really say a lot about it, although third parties could.)

Giunchigliani is a force who Sisolak will have to reckon with. He already is as she is poised to make what she has called a “soft announcement” Monday at Las Vegas Academy High School. That’s like a soft opening, where a casino invites VIPs but later has a grand opening?

Giunchigliani is beloved by the base and believes she can raise $1 million by the new year from what she calls “non-traditional sources.” That’s a tall task, and she will not be able to raise much during the general election from a Strip that will mostly be all in for Laxalt.

Sisolak already has $4 million or so, and he is rounding up endorsements, especially from labor, to try to scare out his fellow commissioner. Filing is not until next March, and many in the Democratic Establishment fear Giunchigliani could hurt their chances to win the race because they believe the more moderate Sisolak has better odds to defeat Laxalt. They also know that she could easily defeat Sisolak in a low-turnout primary, which is what has a lot of them worried.

But that is all conventional wisdom, right? And if I told you Adam Laxalt would become attorney general and still lose Clark and Washoe counties, would you have believed me in 2014? So maybe if I told you Chris Giunchigliani could win as a pure liberal in purple Nevada, you won’t scoff so quickly?

I’m still not certain she will file as the campaign continues to induce her to seek other employment. But if she gets in, tomorrow’s soft announcement along with Laxalt’s grander one will mark the beginning of one of the most intriguing – and unconventional – governor’s races in Nevada annals.


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