PAHRUMP — In a dusty town nearly an hour from the glitzy Las Vegas lights, two politicians have resorted to name-calling, mudslinging and trash-talking — all in an effort to win the votes of Pahrumpians like Patricia Ellis.
Ellis, a Kansas native who moved to Pahrump nearly four years ago and opened a barbecue food truck business with her father, said she’s turned off by how nasty the race has become.
From “political prostitutes” to abusers, pimps and sellouts, the insults are flowing between Republican Assemblyman James Oscarson and Dennis Hof, an outspoken businessman, TV personality and owner of six brothels, including the famous Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Carson City.
Hof began firing insults in November with newspaper ads and billboards. And it will likely increase as the June 12 primary election nears.
Ellis would rather focus on the issues. She said the rural city of 36,000 people has few activities to keep her teenage son out of trouble, and Ellis wants to see Oscarson, who launched his re-election bid Feb. 9 about a mile away from the shopping center where Ellis regularly parks the food truck, change that.
“I’ve bumped into Oscarson several times delivering food, and he seems like a genuine person,” said Ellis, standing near her Pete’s Meats & Treats truck. “Just be good to the people and the people will be good to you.”
Oscarson on Friday vowed to boost economic development in Pahrump if voters elect him for a fourth time. State Republicans are worried the Assembly deputy minority floor leader could be defeated by Hof, who as an independent challenger in 2016 lost to Oscarson by nearly 21 percentage points.
But now he’s running as a Republican, and he’s hitting Oscarson on the core issues that fire up many voters in rural Assembly District 36 — especially in Pahrump. Water rights. Gun rights. Taxes. All are fodder for Hof’s full-page newspaper ads and at least a dozen billboards attacking the assemblyman.
“The mudslinging, vicious attacks on people just continue to be frustrating to me,” Oscarson said before his campaign kickoff at the Pahrump Nugget Hotel and Casino. “I just don’t like to campaign that way, but I will respond if I have to. I feel bad for the voting public that they have to listen to that.”
Although Oscarson said he’d “rather focus on the issues,” the fight has gotten nastier — Hof rehashed Oscarson’s 1997 arrest in Arizona for disorderly conduct at a hockey game — and the incumbent is swinging back. He called his opponent a womanizer and a “pimp” and launched www.stophof.com, a website that details Hof’s role in allegedly helping women auction off their virginity.
Hof shrugged it off.
“The only thing he can use against me to make me look bad is my brothel business,” Hof said. “But this state was born on mining, gaming, girls and liquor. That’s what Nevada was built on. So who are you to put me down because I’m doing a legal business? You might call me a pimp, but guess what, who best to run those political whores in Carson City but me?”
But does the name-calling matter to Pahrump, where Donald Trump in 2016 beat Hillary Clinton by more than 40 points despite Clinton winning Nevada?
“I think they’re all crooks,” said Richard Calgren, 73, a Democrat and retired electrician, as he left the Saddle West casino Friday.
But Calgren says he voted for Oscarson in 2016 — and he’ll do it again this year.
“I would never vote for Hof. He’s a pimp,” Calgren said. “I think he’s making promises he can’t back up. He’s saying no taxes at all, but you have to have taxes to pay for services.”
Hof has promised to repeal the state’s commerce tax, which taxes large businesses with $4 million or more in annual revenue. The tax plan passed in 2015 with bipartisan support as part of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $1.1 billion package to support K-12 education. Oscarson initially voiced opposition to the tax but ultimately voted for it.
“Supporting our children and education is critical to me, when we’re ranked the way we do,” the assemblyman said. “When you can’t get people to move to a state because they don’t want their kids to go to your schools, that’s extremely problematic.”
Hof said that makes Oscarson a RINO — Republican in Name Only — and called the commerce tax “a scam.”
“They say the money is going for the kids and the schools, but the reality is the rural counties don’t get any money at all,” Hof said.
In the dash for cash, Oscarson is far ahead of Hof. His campaign raised $58,658 last year, with major contributions coming from gas and power companies, business and health care groups. His campaign kickoff drew more than 200 attendees, and he’s secured weighty endorsements, including one from former Nevada Taxpayers Association President Carole Vilardo.
Hof reported raising $10,000 from a loan he gave himself. But the brothel owner’s plainspoken “tell-it-like-it-is” approach — which helped propel Trump to the presidency — has won over some Pahrump residents. And Hof relishes the comparisons to Trump: Both are wealthy businessmen who landed hit reality TV shows, and both sign the “front of paychecks, not the back,” Hof said.
“I could relate to Dennis Hof. That’s why I’m voting for him,” said Ray Castaneda, 67, a retired warehouse worker. “I heard he’s a hardworking person like I was. He started in a gas station and worked his way up. I respect him.”