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Challengers lining up for Sisolak, Cortez Masto in 2022

Updated April 5, 2021 - 10:17 am

Although the 2020 election is just five months in the rearview, the state’s political machines have churned back into motion as potential candidates make early decisions about the state’s most consequential races of 2022: governor and U.S. Senate.

Gov. Steve Sisolak and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, both Democrats, will seek re-election for the first time in 2022. Both enter 2021 with millions of dollars in the bank, the support of their party and spots at the top of Republican targeting lists. Each won election by less than 5 percentage points in what is still very much a swing state.

These races could go a long way toward deciding whether Nevada’s recent Democratic lean is becoming permanent or if Republicans can rally after struggling in several consecutive election cycles.

The deadline to formally enter either race is still a year away, but the national political calendar turns over faster than ever before. In conversations with more than a dozen local political consultants, campaign staffers and rumored candidates themselves, a clear consensus has formed around who may be interested in both high-profile positions.

Rep. Mark Amodei, former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo are each taking a serious look at entering the Republican primary field for governor, according to multiple sources interviewed by the Review-Journal. And a few other lower-profile Republicans and perhaps even a few Democrats are reportedly considering their own bids to unseat Sisolak.

The Senate race appears less murky at this early stage, with multiple sources within local and national Republican politics saying the party’s nomination is former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s to accept should he want it.

Both races are sure to be of national interest as the two parties struggle for power, with Cortez Masto’s seat being of particular import because of Democrats’ thin margin of control in the Senate. Local politicos believe the spending from both parties in her re-election bid may eclipse $100 million.

Governor

Amodei confirmed his interest in the governor’s office in December, and he said in an interview Wednesday that not much has changed.

“You have to think about in terms of building an organization, uniting Republicans and reaching out to those nonpartisans and independents,” Amodei said. “Republicans are the No. 3 group in Clark County. No Republican can win enough support in Clark County while turning out just Republicans.”

Amodei said he’s mostly focused on his work in Congress and happy in that position. He recently filed for re-election, should he choose to go that route.

He has not yet spoken to Hutchison, but he recently spoke to Lombardo.

“The objective is to put the strongest candidate forward,” Amodei said. “Lombardo has won two races in Clark County, though they were nonpartisan, and (has) some name identification. I’ve never lost a county in six straight election victories.”

Amodei stressed the need for all Republicans to adapt to a changing electorate: Republicans must appeal to nonpartisans, he said, and the party must accept that every Nevadan will be mailed a ballot and adjust accordingly. A bill pending in the Nevada Legislature would make mail voting permanent in Nevada.

Amodei also expressed what a difficult task defeating Sisolak would be, for himself or whomever carries the nomination.

“The economy will be moving in the right direction by the election, and it’s a sitting incumbent governor with close to five million bucks in the bank. That’s tough,” he said. “You’re not going to bash your way to the governor’s office. We saw enough of that attempted last election. You need to connect with the voters.”

Lombardo and Hutchison are said to be seriously exploring a run through Republican political consultant Mike Slanker.

Slanker also represents former Sen. Dean Heller, another potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate. But Amodei and most local Republican political operatives believe Heller is content to sit out this cycle unless the waters change.

Attempts made through Slanker to reach Lombardo, Hutchison and Heller for comment on the speculation were not successful.

The belief in Republican political circles is the potential candidates will come to an agreement in the next month and not compete against one another in a primary.

Lombardo could run for re-election as sheriff in 2022, as the position is not subject to term limits, and Hutchison served only one term as lieutenant governor.

A newcomer is also said to be considering a Republican bid for governor: Derek Stevens, the Las Vegas-based owner of Circa, D Las Vegas and Golden Gate hotel-casinos. Attempts to reach Stevens for comment were not successful.

Two Clark County Democrats are also reportedly considering some sort of challenge to Sisolak: Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick and North Las Vegas Mayor John Jay Lee. Both have clashed with Sisolak previously during the trio’s long careers in public office.

Lee said this week he had been “approached by different people in both parties” to consider switching to the Republican Party and running as a moderate.

“I’m flattered, but at this point, I’m still focused on some big projects in North Las Vegas, and I don’t want to be distracted,” Lee said.

Kirkpatrick, who sources from both parties said is considering a primary bid against Sisolak, did not respond to a request for comment.

As for Sisolak, campaign spokesman Jim Ferrence said: “While the governor’s complete focus right now is reopening safely, getting shots in arms and putting people back to work, he welcomes all challengers to the race and looks forward to a vigorous debate, in 2022, about his plan for a stronger Nevada.”

U.S. Senate

The race to face Cortez Masto appears much less complicated, with multiple sources saying the national party favors Laxalt. Other would-be Republican candidates are said to not wish to face Laxalt, who probably would get support from Senate Republicans and former President Donald Trump in what could be a bitterly personal and costly primary election.

Both McClatchy and CNN reported in March that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is personally watching for Laxalt’s decision. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also tweeted on March 9 that Laxalt would “play a huge part in making a (return to common sense and sanity in Nevada) happen.”

Republicans statewide are hoping for a repeat of the 2014 midterms, in which their base carried Laxalt, Hutchison and others to victory in a low-turnout election by largely running against Democratic President Barack Obama’s agenda.

They will seek to equate Democratic leaders with school and business closures and other hardships experienced by many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the election climate is likely to be very different.

The Legislature will almost certainly pass the vote-by-mail bill, which would increase voter turnout. And Trump’s political movement had not yet happened in 2014. There also was no Senate race that year.

Democrats hope for something more like 2010, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid easily defeated Republican challenger Sharron Angle at the top of the ticket.

Laxalt, like Angle, probably would be painted as a radical, polarizing figure in local politics. He has spent the better part of a year unsuccessfully attempting to reverse the state’s 2020 election results and its election policies.

He has also been a full-throated supporter of Trump and one of his de facto voices in the state.

Laxalt did not respond to a request for comment.

Though not yet thought of in the same way Reid is, Cortez Masto is very much the current face of Democratic power in Nevada.

She is the only freshman senator with a position in Senate leadership and is coming off a term as leader of the Democrats’ senatorial campaign arm in which the party assumed control of the upper house of Congress for the first time since Reid’s tenure. She was also said to have been briefly considered as a possible running mate for President Joe Biden.

Those strong national ties are either a strength or a weakness, often depending on whether the person answering works for Democrats or Republicans.

Cortez Masto entered the year with $3 million saved in her own campaign chest and the ability to call on many millions more in national support.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval has also long been a rumored candidate for Senate, with both parties watching the popular Republican’s movements for months now.

He is serving as president of the University of Nevada, Reno. Many political watchers expect him to stay put.

Sandoval declined an interview inquiry through a university spokesperson.

“He very much focused on his current role as president of the university and would prefer to keep his time and attention focused on that role,” said Kerri Garcia Hendricks, the university’s executive director of marketing and communications.

Wild cards

Two well-known moderate Republican legislators, state Sens. Heidi Gansert and Ben Kieckhefer, have also been mentioned by sources as candidates for either the gubernatorial or senatorial race, as well as lower statewide offices.

“The middle of the session is not the best time for a legislator to consider your political future,” Kieckhefer said in an interview. “If I had to do that, I’d probably walk across the courtyard and hand the governor my resignation.”

But Kieckhefer said he is “still thinking about what a race for governor looks like” and “has had a few conversations about the Senate.” He is termed out as a state senator in 2022 and hopes to reach a decision by June.

“I think my brand of legislating — consensus building and problem solving in a bipartisan way — is needed at both state and federal levels right now,” Kieckhefer said.

Asked about rumors he may slot himself into the race for secretary of state should he decide against either race, Kieckhefer was quite direct.

“A lot of people are trying to slot me into a lot of races, but the most important thing you have to ask when weighing a run for office is do I want the job? And I do not want the job of the secretary of state,” he said.

Gansert, Sandoval’s former chief of staff, was recently re-elected to her second term in the state Senate and said her total focus remains on that role, which is likely to include a special session or two this year after the current session ends.

“I certainly see the growing frustration over the lack of checks and balances and the one-party rule in our government, but I have a lot to get done in the Legislature,” she said.

Contact Rory Appleton at rappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0276. Follow @RoryDoesPhonics on Twitter.

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