The Democrat the election left behind

November 17, 2022 6:20 am

He beat Adam Laxalt that one time though. (Photo: Richard Bednarski)

Sure, Catherine Cortez Masto defeated Adam Laxalt.

But Steve Sisolak did it first. 

For decades Republicans have had a built-in advantage in the race for governor, because in Nevada elections are conducted in the middle of a president’s term, when turnout traditionally has been lower. Sisolak’s defeat of Laxalt in 2018 marked the first time Nevada elected a Democratic governor since Bob Miller won reelection in 1994.

But Democratic turnout wasn’t the problem in Nevada this midterm election. Along with Cortez Masto, three incumbent Democrats successfully defended their riskily redistricted congressional seats, and three Democrats scored crucial victories over wild-eyed Trumpist extremists for the statewide offices of attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer.

Across the nation, Democrats outperformed not only the tendency of their own party’s voters to turn out in lower numbers in midterms, but also surmounted the historical disadvantage in midterms suffered by the party of the President.

Since World War II, the President’s party has lost an average of 26 House seats. In more recent history the drubbings – or shellacking, as Obama called his – have been even more brutal, especially in a president’s first midterm. George W. Bush’s in 2002 is the exception, because at that time an unseemly majority of the electorate was wallowing in post 9-11 bloodlust and Republicans gained a few seats.

But in Bush’s second midterm, the Republicans lost 32 seats. Bill Clinton lost 54 in ’94, the year of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution. Obama’s aforementioned shellacking in 2010 (Tea Party and death panels) involved losing a whopping 63 seats. Trump, in his one and only midterm, lost 41. 

Some votes are still being counted (oh hi California) so we don’t know exactly how many House seats Democrats are going to lose in 2022. But it isn’t going to come anywhere near those numbers, and might be held to single digits. Incredibly, it was only Wednesday, eight days after Election Day, that Republicans officially secured a majority – a very small majority – in the House of Representatives.

And thanks to Democrats flipping a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania and incumbent Democratic senators, including Cortez Masto, successfully defending theirs, Democrats will retain control of the Senate. Democrats still have a chance of padding their edge in the Senate with a win in next month’s runoff election in Georgia.

This year was also the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first midterm election in 1934 that the president’s party didn’t lose a single state legislative chamber. In fact, they flipped some from Republican to Democratic control.

Up and down the ballot from coast to coast, and defying the traditional curse that accompanies one of their own occupying the White House, this midterm election was remarkably, historically good for Democrats.

Except for Sisolak. 

In fact, he was the nation’s only incumbent Democratic governor to lose this year.

There are a lot of reasons Sisolak lost. The pandemic. Gas at $5 a gallon. The fact that his opponent, Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo, had a history of winning elections – as a nonpartisan, not a Republican – in Democratic and vote-rich Southern Nevada. 

To reiterate one more time, Lombardo, a sitting sheriff, wasn’t a likely person to run for governor because of his trenchant diagnosis of the state’s most urgent priorities. Rather, his candidacy posed a possible solution to a Republican Southern Nevada math problem.

As a candidate, Lombardo was flawed. But the other Republican candidates running for statewide and federal offices in Nevada were more so. For example, Democratic state Treasurer Zach Conine got to run against vulgarian Michele Fiore. Sisolak, alas, did not have the same luck of the draw, and was deprived the opportunity of running against Fiore’s fellow election-denying and perpetually petulant kindred spirit, Joey Gilbert.

And Cortez Masto got to run against the face of the Big Lie in Nevada, Laxalt.

Her campaign leaned in on Laxalt’s election-denying, democracy-defying fealty to Trump and Trumpism. That task was made easier for Democrats in Nevada and nationwide because Trump insisted on big-footing all over the midterms.

Sisolak’s campaign for some reason refrained from highlighting Lombardo’s enabling embrace of Trump and Trumpism. 

When Lombaro folded for Trump, saying he wouldn’t call Trump “great” during a debate only to issue a statement hours later doing exactly that in an obviously obedient attempt to appease and apologize to Trump, Sisolak’s campaign might have run ads and made a big deal about that. 

It didn’t.

Lombardo’s campaign was about law and order (he’s “for” it) more than anything else. And yet in a blazing demonstration of hypocrisy, during the campaign Lombardo the lawman chummed it up with Trump, a figure so lawless he even tried to steal an election from American voters. 

Sisolak’s campaign might have run ads and made a big deal about that.

It didn’t.

Tying Lombardo to Trump and Trumpism would have been easy. Would it have made a difference? We’ll never know, because Sisolak’s campaign didn’t emphasize it.

Whatever and however many reasons for Sisolak’s loss, History will likely be kind to him. Remember how freaky everything was at the pandemic’s outset? Making decisions for a state – and one with a tourist economy, no less – during Covid was a responsibility, and a burden, few if any of us can imagine. Sisolak erred on the side of saving lives. 

Oh and thanks to Sisolak, Adam Laxalt wasn’t governor.

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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.