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Dean Heller, touting conservative credentials, announces run for governor

Updated September 20, 2021 - 4:33 pm

CARSON CITY — Former GOP Sen. Dean Heller attacked incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak for “putting Nevada at the top of every bad list in America” and staked claim to conservative credentials he said other Republican hopefuls lack as he launched his candidacy for governor Monday.

Returning to politics after losing his 2018 bid for re-election, the former three-term secretary of state said he chose to run because “bad politicians started making bad decisions” in response to the 2020 coronavirus outbreak.

He cited mandated mass lockdowns imposed in response to the outbreak and their impact on businesses, workers and schools. He also pledged “no mandates and no more lockdowns,” then pivoted to criticize Democratic-led ballot reform efforts to make voting easier amid the pandemic, which he said impacted voting integrity. Those reforms were made permanent in the Legislature this year.

“As a former secretary of state, I think I know a thing or two about elections,” Heller said, noting that he had removed a county clerk from office for election irregularities during his tenure. He pledged to press for a voter ID law for Nevada if elected.

“This is serious business,” Heller said. “If you don’t have safe and secure elections, what do we have in this country?”

Heller chose a smallish back room at GOP headquarters in Carson City for his official announcement in homage to the city where he was raised and got his political start. He was introduced by state GOP Chairman Michael McDonald, who said Heller as senator “was always there for us,” though he stopped short of endorsing him in the governor’s race.

Heller’s long-expected announcement puts him in contention for the Republican nomination to face Sisolak next year against Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, and businessmen Guy Nohra, with the GOP hopefuls vying for the mantle of most conservative. Taking questions from reporters after his announcement, Heller said he was “the only proven conservative in this race.”

“I’ll put my conservative credentials on abortion, on crime, on immigration against any candidate in this race,” he said.

The Sisolak campaign, in a statement on Heller’s candidacy, said: “Republicans have found themselves in a crowded primary they will have to fight through for the next nine months. In the meantime, Governor Sisolak will be focused on Nevada’s recovery — getting more shots in arms, Nevadans back to work and businesses back open and thriving.”

Later Monday, at an arts event at the governor’s mansion in Carson City, the governor added: “I’ve got five of them (Republican candidates) out there criticizing, and you know, I can tell you this, that fighting a pandemic is not an easy job.”

“It’s easier to play Monday morning quarterback, which is what they’re all doing,” Sisolak added. “I’m proud of the way we’ve protected the state, protected our healthcare system, and tried to keep people alive, which was what’s it’s been about the whole time. We’re reopening our economy, doing the best we possibly can. And I’m proud of the way that the residents in Nevada have reacted.”

Last election ‘a mess’

Heller, pressed on the question of election fraud in 2020, and asked whether he believed former President Donald Trump lost the election because of it, said: “I know who the president of the United States is. But I think our last election was a mess.” He compared Republican claims of a rigged 2020 election to complaints made by Democrats in 2016 of election meddling by Russian interests to swing the election to Trump.

He declined to challenge current Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, who fended off claims of fraud in 2020 and found no evidence of it in the state.

“What I will say is that the Democrats in the last legislative session did make it easier to cheat,” Heller said.

Heller said he removed the Washoe County registrar of voters “for a job that was poorly done” when he was secretary of state, and would have sought to do the same in 2020 in Clark County, petitioning commissioners to remove Registrar Joe Gloria for how he ran the election there.

Heller himself narrowly won a primary election for Congress in 2006 that his opponent, former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, alleged was tainted by problems. Although Angle asked for a new election, a court ruled against her.

No vaccine mandates

Heller said he and his family are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 because “that’s what was best for me,” and he urged others to get the shot, but added he “will never mandate it” for businesses or for individuals.

“Let me make this very clear: You will not see on the door of any convenience store, you will not see the door of any bank, you will not see on any box store, a message that you have to wear a mask because it’s been mandated by Gov. Heller.”

But he demurred when asked whether he fully supported how other Republican governors, including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, have responded to COVID-19 in their states.

“I will take a very close look at it,” Heller said of DeSantis’s pandemic response.

Asked about Texas’ move to ban all abortion after six weeks, Heller said he liked “what Texas did. As governor, I’ll get the most conservative abortion laws that we can have in this state regardless of who’s controlling the Legislature at the time.”

Abortion rights in Nevada are guaranteed by a state law that was subject to a 1990 referendum and approved by voters. The law cannot be changed without a subsequent vote of the people.

Heller, 61, served two terms as an assemblyman representing Carson City, three terms as secretary of state, and two terms in the House of Representatives before then-Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed him to the U.S. Senate in 2011, when incumbent John Ensign resigned after an extramarital affair. Heller won the seat in 2012 but lost his 2018 bid for re-election to Democrat Jacky Rosen.

Though he navigated a fraught relationship with Trump, first as a critic but later as an ally, Heller said he would welcome the former president’s support in the governor’s race.

In a video ad unveiled with his announcement, Heller highlighted a conservative campaign platform that included anti-abortion themes and directly attacked Sisolak for mask mandates and government-ordered business shutdowns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also mentioned “sanctuary cities,” an oblique shot at Lombardo, whose police department has been accused of failing to cooperate with federal authorities on immigration enforcement. Lombardo has denied those charges.

Heller continued his announcement swing Monday afternoon in Las Vegas. He repeated many of the themes from his morning announcement, clarifying that he supports a ban on abortion after six weeks, as contemplated in the Texas law, but would allow for exceptions for rape or incest, which the Lone Star State does not.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter. Review-Journal Politics and Government Editor Steve Sebelius and Staff Writer Blake Apgar contributed to this story.

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