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How Democrat Steve Sisolak defeated conservative rising star Adam Laxalt in bid for governor's mansion

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Election 2018
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Adam Laxalt greets supporters at the Nevada Day Parade in Carson City on Oct. 27, 2018. Photo by David Calvert.

After pouring everything into a hard-fought Democratic primary against fellow Clark County commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, Steve Sisolak had to spend much of the summer regrouping and reloading.

Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, on the other hand, had fully stocked campaign coffers after a blowout victory in the primary. The day after that June election, his team went up with its first ad painting Sisolak as a corrupt politician wrapped up in pay-to-play deals during his time as a county commissioner.

But in spite of Laxalt’s head start on the airwaves, and in spite of warnings that commissioners like Sisolak are unelectable because they deal daily in a world of contracts and campaign donations that can look unseemly, Sisolak defeated Laxalt by four points, or almost 40,000 votes. How?

Sisolak’s team credits his win to sticking to three key themes — health care, jobs and education — consistently for more than a year.

“That steady message discipline showed independent voters across the state that Steve was going to be a steady hand at the tiller … and focused on things that matter to working Nevadans and independent voters,” said Campaign Manager Chris Sloan.

While Sisolak’s campaign went dark on TV for weeks, the Democratic Governors Association stepped in to fill that gap with a campaign arguing Laxalt would take Nevada backwards on those issues — including by repealing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Commerce Tax and rolling back the expansion of Medicaid. The DGA believes that helped Sisolak transcend his party label and his place on the Democratic spectrum.

“I think that it really came down to not being about progressive, moderate, liberal. It was just about the state moving forward,” said Corey Platt, the DGA’s political director.

Laxalt softened on those issues as the campaign carried on. He noted that it would be difficult to repeal the Commerce Tax because Democrats had a lock on both chambers of the Legislature. He argued that he would preserve protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and that he would not roll back Medicaid. And he promised to put $500 million of new money into education.

But Sisolak’s campaign believes the pivot came too late. From Labor Day onward, Sloan said, their internal polling showed them within the margin of error.

Laxalt’s campaign and allies continued with ads alleging corruption, dubbing the commissioner “Shady Steve.” Sisolak’s team says the initial attacks had some effect, but they believe they didn’t touch voters personally enough. 

“They were just attacking character without a clear line on how it affects voters, and I think that was a miscalculation on their part,” said spokeswoman Christina Amestoy.

His team also thinks that ads suggesting Sisolak would raise property taxes did not cut deeply enough in light of his record as a self-described fiscal conservative who made cuts to the county budget during the recession.

“I think telling that story and showing that Steve is somebody who was very thoughtful and very budget-oriented, means that those attacks, while they break through to some people, were sort of grazing shots, if you will, that didn’t hit home with enough people because Steve has this reputation and record of doing exactly what voters want from an elected official,” Sloan said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak, left, talks to Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval during the Vintage Vegas Luncheon sponsored by the Latin Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

In a focus group they conducted, Sisolak’s team said, one particularly effective message for Republican and independent voters was that popular moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval had opted not to endorse Laxalt. UNLV political science professor David Damore said Laxalt’s departure from the generally successful “Sandoval model” — including Laxalt’s criticism of the Commerce Tax and his frequent intervention as attorney general on hot-button issues such as abortion — was puzzling.

“When you have the Republican candidate treating the outgoing Republican more harshly than the Democratic candidate, you might want to scratch your head on that one,” he said. “That was sort of the stunning part because the secret to Sandoval’s success was he focused on things people cared about and he let the divisive social issues be ignored.”

Platt said Sisolak’s victory came down to his ability to show himself as authentic and memorable on a human level. He pointed to the ads in which Sisolak and his two adult daughters talked directly to the camera about Sisolak’s experience as single dad — that was a unique storyline that helped distinguish him from “cookie-cutter” candidates, Platt said.

Laxalt, on the other hand, was pictured jogging or spending time with his youthful family but almost never spoke in his own ads. His wife Jaime, mother Michelle and father-in-law, or a narrator, were the primary voices in his TV commercials.

“I don’t know how much that allows voters to get to know a candidate,” said Michelle White, director of the group For Our Future, which supported Sisolak. “In a large scale race you can’t go door to door as a candidate when you’re running statewide. And so that’s your opportunity to really get yourself out there. And while it’s always great to have those third-party validators, I think it’s important for voters to see the actual candidate, get to know them.”

Sisolak, who is known to give out business cards with his cell phone number on them and answer when people call, was also much more likely to grant interviews.

“If you’re not talking to the press, you’re not talking to voters so you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to get your message across,” said Barb Solish, a top Sisolak aide. “If you’re unwilling to do that, then you’re losing that opportunity.”

His team said the strategy was to let Sisolak be himself and attend as many events in the community as he could.

“He is the best asset we will have on the campaign, no matter how much TV or digital or anything we could purchase,” Sloan said. “At the end of the day, Steve being Steve and Steve getting out there and talking to voters is the best asset we have … [we] put him in front of real people as often as we humanly possibly could.”

Steve Sisolak, right, greets a woman dressed in a Halloween costume while campaigning in Carson City during a Nevada Day celebration on Oct. 27, 2018.

Laxalt was diligent in reaching out to rural Nevada, kicking off his campaign by barnstorming in all 17 counties when Sisolak skipped some. Driving up turnout in rural Nevada was what helped him win his attorney general race in 2014 even when he lost both Clark and Washoe counties.

But some observers believe his biggest mistake was not spending enough time in the county where 72 percent of the population lives, and then at one point tweeting an excerpt of an op-ed that suggested Sisolak would usher in an era of southern domination. Sisolak was an emblem of Clark County as chair of the commission and advocated for the southern institutions as a member of the Nevada Board of Regents.

“One of Sandoval’s secrets to success was that ‘One Nevada’ mantra,” Damore said. “Even though everyone knows there’s tensions and differences but you don’t make them explicit, and they did, and it just seems unbelievable. Maybe they didn’t think people down here would notice. But they just didn’t spend any time down here.”

In the end, far more people turned out in 2018 than in 2014. And the techniques that play well with the Republican base — preventing Nevada from becoming California, the hard line stances on the Commerce Tax and Obamacare, and the public appearances with Trump — did not carry the day for Laxalt or Sen. Dean Heller.

“It’s the middle that will be deciding elections in the future for sure and had a large part in the outcome of Tuesday,” White said. “I think they did not do a good job of messaging to them and really just went after their base and did not predict that folks would be turning out at the levels they were turning out at.”

Laxalt’s top adviser, Robert Uithoven, explained in an email that he believes the loss was a numbers game.

“The days of the midterm cycle in politics may be gone — at least in swing states — and we end up with almost presidential-level money, competition, interest and organization,” he told The Nevada Independent. “I hope Nevada can remain a swing state, but that’s in jeopardy when Republicans are already down 75,000 voters before the first ballot is cast.”

Laxalt’s advisers said he worked extremely hard on the campaign trail, phoning many voters personally in the final runup to Election Day. In an emotional concession speech, he told supporters “we left it all on the field.”

“Both candidates ran good campaigns, fought hard, and while 2014 wasn’t their cycle, 2018 was not ours,” Uithoven said. “Closing the registration gap must occur for Republicans to be competitive in the future.”

But the question remains whether groups such as the Republican National Committee — which invested so much to register voters and cultivate the ground game that helped Laxalt and other Republicans compete — will be as interested in Nevada in the future after a second consecutive blue year.

“That’s how I sort of looked at 2018 — as a potential tipping point. If the Republicans could hold their own this cycle, they would have some representation in government but also feeling pretty good about 2020,” Damore said. “Now the worry’s got to be Texas, Arizona. At the end of the day, by the time the next Senate race is here, [Nevada’s] going to be pretty blue.”

With his wife, Jamie, by his side, Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt delivers his concession speech at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
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