One doesn’t know what he wants, the other just wants to go home

November 3, 2022 5:44 am

Left: An improbable candidate. Right: A predestined one.

With the campaigns winding down and election day nearly upon us, it seems worth reviewing how and why Joe Lombardo and Adam Laxalt are at the top of the ticket. After all, it’s exceedingly rare in the U.S. for a sitting sheriff to run for governor. And the only Republican in the 21st century to lose a race for Nevada governor seems an odd choice to put up for U.S. Senate. It’s all bizarre. So here’s a recap:

The Product

In the spring of 2021 when it became clear that Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo was going to run for the Republican nomination to be Nevada’s governor, the main question was: Why?

An answer was provided in June of 2021, via a column by a Lombardo campaign associate, former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison: Lombardo had the “best chance” of beating Gov. Steve Sisolak. 

Prior to running for governor, Lombardo had indicated little to no interest in statewide issues. He still hasn’t. Apart from garden-variety campaign attempts to portray one’s opponent as horrible, and occasional diversions into trending right-wing memes (remember when Lombardo was pretending to be freaked out by critical race theory?) Lombardo’s campaign has focused on the not particularly unique circumstances by which Lombardo happens to be a cop.

Lombardo’s opening campaign media material, an introductory video released 16 months ago (my how time flies), featured him solemnly reaching for his badge and gun and then striding grimly in his uniform. All in slow motion. 

Now, with the campaign winding down, the advertising zone is still flooded with images of Lombardo in his uniform.

Lombardo won two races for Clark County sheriff, not as a Republican, but as a nonpartisan running for a nonpartisan office. Hutchison and Lombardo’s other chief handlers, long-time GOP consultants Ryan Erwin and Mike Slanker, didn’t hook up with Lombardo because they were impressed by the sheriff’s uniquely sharp diagnosis of the state’s most pressing problems and his commanding grasp of policy solutions. 

His handlers hooked up with Lombardo a) to situate themselves between the candidate and Robert Bigelow’s money, and b) because Lombardo had name recognition after eight years of mostly kid-gloves treatment in by far the state’s biggest media market, the Democratic stronghold of Southern Nevada. A bunch of those Democrats in Clark County had already voted for Lombardo for sheriff. With the right breaks (oh, hi price of gas), maybe some of those Clark County Democrats could be persuaded to vote for him for governor, too.

Lombardo wasn’t plopped into the race for governor because he’s a consummate public servant with a clear vision for the state (something he never did articulate). He was plopped into the race as an attempt to answer a Republican Party Southern Nevada math problem.

Lombardo has been all over the map, not just on abortion, but on his cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on “defunding the police” (he was for it before he was against it) and of course, on Trump’s greatness (after some back and forth with himself on the subject, Lombardo’s most recent position is that Trump was “the greatest president”).

Speaking at a rally in Las Vegas this week, Barack Obama noted how Lombardo “says different things to different audiences, trying to play both sides.” Lombardo “claims he’s not a politician but let me tell you he acts like the worst kind,” Obama said.

Eh, not so fast, Obama.

Beltway Boy

Trumpism enabler and uniform fetishist Joe Lombardo’s campaign for governor may represent an unexpected and somewhat improbable opportunity based on the political calculation of others. Adam Laxalt is different.

As everyone knows, Laxalt parachuted into Nevada roughly a decade ago for the sole purpose of starting what he expected to be a lifelong political career, a career that would take him — preferably sooner rather than later — back to the affluent suburban neighborhoods of his privileged youth in the Washington D.C. metro area.

It’s always been laughably obvious, even to casual observers.

To Laxalt, Nevada isn’t a place full of people striving to thrive while overcoming challenges, many of which are unique to Nevada and the West. Rather, for Laxalt, Nevada is a mark — a comparatively small political market where, solely by virtue of his last name and virtually nothing else, he could launch a career that could get him to where and what he really wanted to be — a Washington political celebrity.

When Laxalt officially announced his candidacy 15 months ago (my how time flies), it was accompanied by a video, narrated by him. Happy children frolicing in gentle sunlight are jarringly juxtaposed with generic but malevolent culture war fear mongering. It’s full of hot-button national issues, the time’s trending right-wing memes, and manufactured outrage. 

And underscoring that his concern for Nevada and Nevadans is no match for his insatiable thirst for national political fame, there is one word throughout the video that Laxalt never says: Nevada.

One of the things Laxalt is known for is leading the charge in Nevada to overturn the 2020 election results, efforts that sank under the staggering weight of their moral, factual and legal bankruptcy. 

An often overlooked illustration of Laxalt’s constant, calculated and cynical approach to public issues came shortly thereafter. Once it became clear to him that the election would not be overturned, Laxalt went silent. The silence continued on and in the days after Jan. 6, a time when many Republicans were denouncing Trump and the insurrection. 

Those Republicans would soon backtrack and return to the Trump hive mind, of course. But Laxalt, waiting to see which way the wind would blow, all but disappeared from public view. In August 2021, just days before he would announce his Senate candidacy and by which time it was clear Trump had maintained and secured his grip on the Republicans, Laxalt tweeted for the first time in eight months.

Days after Laxalt announced, Trump endorsed him, saying Laxalt “fought valiantly against the Election Fraud, which took place in Nevada.”

Everyone who thinks Laxalt would still be standing by Trump if all the other Republicans in Congress had turned on him, raise your hands. Seeing no hands …

An odd thing – one of what would ultimately be several – about electing Laxalt to the U.S. Senate, is this: The stereotype is that here in Nevada we take advantage of people when they swoop in from out of state and strut around like they know what they’re doing, not let them take advantage of us. And yet that’s what Laxalt’s been doing all along. Taking advantage of Nevada to get back to where he always wanted to be.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.