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The top 10 political stories of 2018

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

I have been doing an end-of-year top 10 list for some time, ticking off the most significant political events of the prior 12 months.

But I sensed as I looked back over 2018 that something changed in Nevada – or some things. Perhaps.

Yes, I am the same guy who goes to Carson City every other year hoping for change, so take this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, there were some hopeful trends and necessary repudiations that make me sanguine for 2019 and beyond. (Talk to me a year from now to see whether I am still Pundit Sunny.)

The list:

No. 1 – The deep blue wave: It began at the top (governor, U.S. Senate), washed over the statewide races (leaving only Cegavske Island untouched) and swept the swing congressional contests and legislative races. The Democrats control all the levers of power in Nevada, and they will through the next cycle, too, barring something unforeseen. That means they will control redistricting and reapportionment, creating the possibility of a decade of Democratic hegemony in Carson City. Add in the quiet but important passage of a motor-voter initiative, and the conclusion is inescapable: This is a Democratic state for the foreseeable future; the Republicans have no leverage, no bench, no leadership. The Democratic machine is real and spectacular. The only question for the party in power is the same one Robert Redford asked Peter Boyle at the end of “The Candidate,” one of the best political films: “What do we do now?”

No. 2 – Sisolak breaks the Clark County Commission curse: Harry Reid once told his son, Rory, that the commission was a political boneyard, that no one from there would ever be elected governor or U.S. senator. Rory learned the hard way – or the Sandoval way – the truth of the lesson. But Steve Sisolak, with a nearly flawless campaign and a vacuous opponent, proved Reid wrong. Adam Laxalt, who ran under the radar in his 2014 upset for attorney general, tried to hide from the spotlight but was exposed by virtually every media outlet as not ready for prime time and someone who had only passing knowledge of the state where he had spent so little of his life, and he seemed to have no inclination to try to get up to speed. Sisolak was disciplined and focused, vague when he had to be, and his team was superb. Now we will see who he really is.

No. 3 – Hear them roar: There are those who will dismiss a female-majority Legislature, the first in U.S. history, as insignificant, nothing more than identity politics. They will shrug at a female-majority state Supreme Court, a female-majority congressional delegation (including both senators) and a female (Michelle White) soon to be appointed chief of staff, the most powerful unelected position in the state. That would be myopia of the highest degree. Of all the states in the country, Nevada, begun by miners and now overseen by gamers, has arguably been the most patriarchical – nay, sexist – state in the union. For women to now have majorities in two of the three branches of government – and one about to ascend to the power behind the other – is no small feat. The Good Old Boys Network is alive but atrophying, and although women will not lead either legislative house, the men in charge can count. We will soon know whether XX is a better formula for Nevada than XY.

No. 4 – The failure of Trumpism in Nevada: The two Republicans at the top – Adam Laxalt and Dean Heller – hugged the president and his methods: concocted issues, dog-whistling, media-bashing. So, too, did the GOP’s lieutenant governor hopeful, Michael Roberson, whose serial failures are truly historic (Congress, state Senate control, ESAs, recalls, lieutenant governor), and congressional candidate Danny Tarkanian, whose futility is the measure by which all others will be judged. They were all rebuked, their tactics unrewarded, their Trumplove unrequited. In a state once known as The Mississippi of the West, the high minority turnout and the GOP’s failed strategy had even more resonance. I have said since 2016 that those who stood by Donald Trump would be stained for their entire lives. The short, unhappy careers of Laxalt and Roberson and the end of Heller’s perfect record are exclamation points to this proposition. It gives me hope for the state, and I hope the urban areas remember how these candidates pandered to what they saw as latent racism and reflexive Trumpism in the rurals. Maybe it’s time the rurals grew up, too, but that may be too much to hope for.

No. 5 – It was a Heller of a run: For much of his career, Sen. Dean Heller has been the luckiest man in Nevada. His ability to metamorphose at just the right time combined with being in the right place at the right time – Sharron Angle as his primary foe for Congress; his pal, Gov. Brian Sandoval, as governor to appoint him to the U.S. Senate when John Ensign resigned; a House Ethics probe crippling then-Rep. Shelley Berkley in his Senate re-elect, which he still barely won. That ended in 2018. Maybe the Democratic machine would have been too much for him to overcome even if Heller didn’t talk about the president as if he were a deity. Maybe he would have lost that Senate primary to Tarkanian if he hadn’t begged the president to push out Tark. And maybe the president will elongate his public career by making him Interior secretary. But if you sell your soul enough times to advance, sooner or later, the devil will take what he is due. Heller, and his sad team, were willing to paint the indomitable Jacky Rosen as something she clearly was not (wacky? really?) to try to clutch onto a job he doesn’t like and didn’t want to run for until Laxalt scared him out of the governor’s race. It’s a sad postscript to a very long career.

No. 6 – The best usually beats the worst: Imagine if you had the perfect bogeyman and a compelling argument and still lost in a landslide. It’s almost impossible to accomplish, but that’s what the proponents of Question 3 managed to do. So much was at stake in this battle, which would have ended the NV Energy monopoly. And you can talk all you want about Warren Buffett’s bottomless pockets or Sheldon Adelson’s failure to dig more into his, but this was a simply brilliant coalition-bribing (er, building) effort by NV Energy and an incomprehensible strategic blundering by the advocates of energy deregulation. It’s truly mind-blowing to think how this was over months before Nov. 6 because of the stark contrast in campaigns. I believe this was the second most important item on the ballot (after governor), and would have had a far-reaching impact on Nevada’s energy future. The war is far from over; the battlefield now returns to Carson City, which is where NV Energy has reigned for decades.

No. 7 – No more Wynning: That Steve Wynn has been the most important figure in the history of gaming is not much in doubt. He may have been eclipsed in recent years in success and political clout (at least nationally) by Adelson. But Wynn is a true visionary who changed the trajectory of Vegas. He also has been very influential with almost every governor since he ascended to the pinnacle, and he was among the first business doyens to be vocally anti-Barack Obama. His precipitous fall from grace after The Wall Street Journal’s exposé almost a year ago was as stunning as it was swift. Even though he and Adelson had become recently aligned, Wynn had been much more effective in Nevada politics, occasionally visiting the Legislature to sway/intimidate lawmakers and often getting his pet policies enacted (remember the art tax break?). Adelson doesn’t exactly have the field to himself now – MGM’s Jim Murren and the Fertittas (Station Casinos) are very active. But the biggest player in the state’s biggest industry is a player no more.

No. 8 – The center holds: Sisolak will fit into a decades-long pattern of Nevada governors of both parties – moderates who occasionally made bold strokes but generally toed the middle. Except for a half-hearted pivot to the left in a primary against Chris Giunchigliani, Sisolak reverted to type in the general. The same is true of Rosen, who felt the disdain of some progressives for not being liberal enough but who was anything but wacky in her impressive runs (still amazing to think that no one knew who she was only two and a half years ago). Nevada does not tend to reward ideologues on either side or we would be talking about either a Gov. Laxalt or Gov. Giunchigliani and, perhaps, a Sen. Heller (even though I think his right turn was hardly sincere). This is as much because of the urban-rural divide as anything, but maybe we should give most voters credit for wanting more than pandering to the extremes.

No. 9 – Adelson’s annus horribilis: The Las Vegas Sands chairman invested resources on three fronts – Question 3, Adam Laxalt and a GOP House. He went 0 for 3.  (If you include Heller, Roberson and Jerry Tao for Supreme Court, he was 0 for 6.) Adelson has never been that successful (politically, that is) in his own state, and his team essentially lost everything he wanted this cycle in Nevada. He spent tens of millions of dollars in those causes, only to come up empty. This is the kind of ROI in business that Adelson would fume about. But since he is still worth more than $30 billion and owns a “newspaper,” it’s hard to feel that sorry for him.

No. 10 – The best campaigns and candidates won: It doesn’t always work this way. But except for Nelson Araujo, who lost to Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (who essentially didn’t run a campaign), the best candidates and campaigns were victorious. I have rarely seen the kind of hackery that populated the top contests as I did this year. Mindless nonsense on social media. Sadly pathetic attacks on opponents. Media snubbing and bashing that backfired. Sanctuary cities and Californiaphobia as the cornerstones of GOP campaigns. Really? This is the best they had? I am hoping that this signals the end of one generation of campaign apparatchiks and the ascension of younger, savvier types. I know barnacles such as GOP Chair Michael McDonald, who attributed the Democratic victories to fraud, and Chuck Muth, a serial failure who finally managed to win an election but then candidate (Dennis Hof) died and the appointee was not his favorite, will always find their paymasters and suckers. But – optimism alert! – maybe this is the year Nevada said goodbye to all of that, that it was ready to grow up on this front, too.

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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