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Opinion

Sisolak will win, definitely, maybe

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Steve Sisolak, left, and Chris Giunchigliani live debate at KTNV on Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

I’m as desperate as you are for it to be over.

Generally, I’m not like normal people: I actually love the hurly burly of elections, the strategy and gamesmanship, human beings showing their foibles under the spotlight’s glare, what my late friend Marc Hechter used to call “the only game for adults.”

But now, on the eve of the election, I feel your pain, too. I just want it to go away -- the screeching accusations, the annoying robocalls, the junk mail, the unsocial media.

Every election cycle involves some sort of fakery. Primaries are often especially egregious, with candidates running to the right or left to energize the base.

This year seems to have had more than the usual share of poseurs in high-profile races. Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Steve Sisolak, who has always been moderate, now wants us to believe he is Bernie Sanders. GOP U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who could barely say Donald Trump’s name just two years ago, now talks of him more lovingly than does Mike Pence. And Michael Roberson, the Senate Republican leader who once pushed through the largest tax increase in history and bragged about being the first elected official to pass funding for English Language Learners, now acts as if he founded the Heritage Foundation as he sputters about “sanctuary cities.”

Who are they fooling? My guess, with their Olivier-like performances as revisionist historians: A lot of folks.

Generally, I would, unlike normal people, laugh at their antics, appreciate their shamelessness and thank them for the material. But never has any election – I know, I know, this is a cliché – been more important in Nevada, both for what it presages nationally and for the future of the state in the post-Sandoval Era.

Whoever wins this horror of a Democratic primary for governor will take on Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the favorite to succeed Brian Sandoval because of the blood left on the battlefield and sacked bank accounts on the Democratic side. Not in recent Nevada history has any viable major party nominee been so unprepared for the highest office in Nevada as is Laxalt, who is lost after a single follow-up question, who is a prisoner of conservative talking points (We cannot become California!) and who appears to have done little to understand the budget and issues of a state he moved to only relatively recently.

Treasurer Dan Schwartz, a smart but quirky and mercurial pol, could not compete with Laxalt, who captured the conservative base with his anti-Obama campaign four years ago and performance since his upset election. And meanwhile, Sisolak and his foe, fellow Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, along with outside groups, have spent about $10 million explaining to voters why neither one is fit for the Moapa Valley TV Maintenance District board, much less governor.

So, yes, Tuesday matters. But what matters much more is how devastating this primary might have been and how Laxalt, for whom Sandoval has only disdain, has become even more of a favorite than he was before to wield more power than anyone else in this state come 2019.

So what will happen? Here’s what to look for:

---Governor: I wrote in January that I thought Giunchigliani would probably win because she actually is a liberal – no posing required. A low-turnout primary would bring out the base. Game over. Dina Titus-Jim Gibson, governor’s primary 2006, redux. “I think, unless Sisolak runs the best campaign in Nevada history, she beats him,” I wrote six months ago.

But pundits, given the privilege afforded congressmen and senators, can revise and extend their remarks made on the record. So:

Has Sisolak run the best campaign in state annals? No. (See Reid, Harry, 2010.)

But after hiring national talent and being remarkably disciplined, Sisolak’s execution has been nearly flawless. And he has done what I didn’t think he would do: He has not hoarded his cash and has spent every penny to defeat his underfunded foe.

His exploitation of Knights fever and Trump’s negatives among Democrats have been savvy. And his mitigation of damage caused by his support of the Raiders stadium and the three quarters of a billion dollar giveaway may have been enough, except in the North, perhaps.

Some of his attacks have been either exaggerated (her paying her husband during her campaigns or voting for salary increases) or flat-out falsehoods (her making it easier for lobbyists to wine and dine). And a story that his supporters have exploited from the Reno Gazette-Journal, implying she showed more fealty to protecting teachers for the union than to protecting kids from predators, surely has cut. His campaign has been smooth, ruthless and focused.

This is not to say Giunchigliani has run a poor campaign. No one I know in politics works harder and when she speaks about an issue, she knows it inside out — indeed, she often comes across as a wonk, speaking in legislative tongues and dropping names that only insiders recognize. Some she has worked with might describe her as abrasive and stubborn, but one on one, she can be engaging, homespun and….real. Chris G, she is.

I am not sure I agree with the Democratic Establishment that has uncomfortably tethered itself to Sisolak because they think Giunchigliani cannot win a general election. (Those spots with Titus and Harry Reid, both of whom have stratospheric approval numbers with Democrats, were very smart.)

Sisolak is, as I have said, much more in the mold of most recent governors of both parties—he is what he has pretended all year not to be, a centrist.

I think Giunchigliani would have a chance, just because this may be a true Year of the Woman and because Laxalt is so callow. Very few experienced political observers in this state would answer that statement by saying: Me, too.

But electing an unabashed liberal in Nevada? Nevada? I acknowledge it seems unlikely.

I don’t think we will get a chance to find out. I think Sisolak wins by 5 percentage points, mostly because of his superior campaign and because the early voting data indicates the electorate is mostly old and white and significantly expanded beyond inveterate voters.

If I am wrong, I refer you back to my January prediction….

In the other major primaries, the ones for Congress, I think Steven Horsford survives that crowded race for his old seat and Danny Tarkanian wins the right to probably lose again in November in Jacky Rosen’s seat.

One other thing to watch Tuesday: The percentages that Laxalt and Heller get in their non-primaries. The base generally comes home in November, but any weakness or strength Tuesday could be a harbinger.

If the first six months of the year have been a cacophonous puppet show, full of sound and fury and irritating almost everyone, I have news for you with all of the outside money pouring into the state in the top two races and both parties desperate to set the table for the presidential cycle in 2020 and reapportionment in 2021: The worst is yet to come.

Disclosure: Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @ralstonreports

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