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Lombardo rises in name recognition, risks forfeiting a genuine opportunity

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
Opinion
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This should have been a very good week for Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo.

His strategy to amble into the 2022 race by meeting and greeting his fellow Republicans statewide to improve his name recognition outside Clark County appears to be working. A new poll of Republican voters published last Sunday by The Nevada Independent shows lawman Lombardo and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller leading a curious lineup of GOP primary candidates out to replace Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.

The Mellman Group phone survey of likely Republican voters conducted in late September has a 4.9-percent plus/minus margin of error. With less than 10 months to go before the September primary, its focused baseline had to please Lombardo’s team even as it reminded Heller’s advisors of the public’s fickle infatuation with politicians attempting a comeback. Heller: 31.3 percent, Lombardo 23.2 percent. But the results tightened to a dead heat when both names were recognized with 27.2 percent of likely voters still undecided.

In other words, there’s a competitive Republican primary for governor in Nevada. I’m not sure what party-switching North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee has in mind after charting a wheezing 3.3 percent in the survey, but word is the Democrats locked the door behind him on his way out of the party.

Although polls taken nearly a year before Election Day are usually quickly forgotten, I’m left wondering what Heller is thinking. At 61, he’s a senior member of a party that has gone off the rails chasing big lie election fraud conspiracies and is using an anti-mask and anti-vaccine protest strategy during a deadly pandemic to rally the base.

Heller is as close to a household name as Nevada Republicans have these days. He’s been in politics for decades, winning a seat in the state Assembly in 1990 and his first statewide race for Secretary of State four years later. (Insert your question about whether he supports fellow Republican SOS Barbara Cegavske’s rebuke of Team Trump’s big lie about widespread voter fraud here.)

Add a couple terms in Congress and a single sashay through the Senate before being bounced out of office by tougher-than-she-looks Jacky Rosen, and going by resume Heller shapes up as an obvious frontrunner. If Heller held any more offices, Democrats would accuse him of not being able to keep a job.

In 2021, little of that appears to matter to a GOP base still wallowing in false grievance and conspiracy theories. Heller’s experience, including the moment when he committed the sin of not appreciating candidate Trump’s comb-over Mussolini act, have made him suspect in many eyes.

All of it plays in Lombardo’s favor — if he can manage to thread the needle with the base in the primary without jabbing himself in the thumb with everyone else in the general. That’s no mean feat, and I’m still not sure Lombardo is up to it.

Perhaps sensing his genuine potential to cause Sisolak headaches in the general, the Democrats are already picking apart Lombardo’s public appearances before friendly crowds from Las Vegas, through the rural counties, and up to Washoe County.

Lombardo is in a position none of the rest of the candidates can hope to emulate, but he continues to waste his opportunity. Where the others have already nose-dived down the Trumpian conspiracy rabbit hole, regurgitating talking point lies big and small in the name of firing up the Ivermectin-curious base, he has had a prime chance to define himself in a more nuanced way: As a candidate who remains above the fray, listens to all sides, and chooses boring facts over dangerous speculation.

It can be argued that the traditional rules will apply this campaign season for Republican candidates: Run to the right in the primary, sprint to the middle in the general. I disagree.

Lombardo has attributes that his opponents can’t match. Stated in simplest terms, a lot more voters like cops than lifer politicians, especially those whose most recent campaign resulted in a technical knockout. The potentially refreshing thing about Lombardo is that as an experienced member of law enforcement, he might think differently than candidates who have made careers out of gripping and grinning and reading the political tea leaves.

But his early ads and public comments have generated the usual themes about the radical socialism inherent in the Democrats’ agenda and the sneaking suspicion that the vote in Nevada wasn’t on the up-and-up in the 2020 election. Such remarks generate applause from the true-believers, who fell 33,000 votes short in 2020.

The easy fundraising dollars may favor members of the Trump Fan Club, but the signs are beginning to point in another direction. Business-interest groups appear increasingly concerned with a political strategy that endangers lives and their own long-term profits. And only the true My Pillow Guy acolytes can sustain themselves with big lie conspiracies forever.

Maybe I’m wrong — a first, I realize. And, hey, it’s only one poll. For that matter, it’s just October. So, perhaps congratulations are in order for the sheriff, who appears comfortable following a Trumpian trail. It’s an increasingly well-worn path in Nevada.

Sheriff Joe Lombardo is on his way to an impressive showing in the primary, but I think he’s blowing his best chance of becoming Nevada’s next governor.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. He is also the author of a new book, "Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War Over the West’s Public Lands." On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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