Nevada voters who have not already cast early or mail-in ballots were deciding Tuesday whether to keep Gov. Steve Sisolak, a first-term Democrat who closed businesses, schools and casinos during the COVID-19 pandemic, or replace him with Republican Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo.
The campaign has been costly and contentious, with airwaves and the internet awash in recent weeks with ads sponsored by the candidates, their parties and political action committees aiming to amplify differences between the two. Polls project a very close finish.
Crime and safety; criminal justice and immigration policies; abortion; the economy, inflation, gasoline prices and housing costs; education; and health care and a state-managed public health insurance option have been among the key issues in the race — along with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Lombardo.
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“A merry mess of issues,” observed Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.
Nevada is a key national battleground state that Trump failed to carry in 2016 or 2020. Democratic President Joe Biden defeated Trump two years ago by a slim 2.4 percentage points.
Voters register reliably Republican in conservative small towns dotting vast rangeland in 15 of the state’s 17 counties. The state’s main population center, Clark County, in and around Las Vegas, registers solidly Democratic. Washoe County and the Reno area tilt slightly to the GOP.
Nonpartisan, libertarian and other parties, combined, attract 700,000 of the state’s 1.8 million registered voters — more than either major party. Voter turnout is expected to be a factor in the governor’s race.
Sisolak, 68, was chairman of the Clark County Commission before becoming Nevada’s first Democratic governor in two decades. He easily won his party nomination for a second term.
Five years ago, Sisolak praised Lombardo amid the glare of the national spotlight after a gunman killed 58 people at an open-air concert on the Las Vegas Strip. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Sisolak backers today point to crime in Las Vegas during Lombardo’s term as sheriff and cite Lombardo’s staffing decisions in a department with about 6,000 employees.
As governor, Sisolak signed the public insurance option created last year by the Democrat-led Legislature. He bluntly declares that as governor he will oppose any attempt to limit the right to an abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Lombardo, who topped a crowded GOP primary field, derided the public health option with an epithet during one candidates’ forum. He said he looks at abortion through a “pro-life lens,” but acknowledges that Nevada voters in 1990 approved a referendum allowing the procedure up to 24 weeks.
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Lombardo, 59, started as a police officer in Las Vegas in 1988 and served two terms as nonpartisan elected Clark County sheriff, the head of the largest police agency in Nevada. He acknowledges that crime has risen in the past two years but blames funding limits and legislative mandates.
Both candidates say they want to improve education in a state consistently ranked at or near the bottom in funding and performance with high student-to-teacher ratios. Bids to break up the sprawling Clark County School District, with more than 300,000 students, have stalled.
Both say teachers should be paid more. But the powerful teachers union in Clark County, which backed Sisolak in 2018, declined to make any endorsement this election.
Lombardo has said he favors school choice, which would help parents send their children to private schools using public funds. Sisolak has said he does not want to divert funding from public to private schools.
In final campaign contribution and expense reports, Sisolak reported spending $13.6 million this year, and Lombardo reported spending $4.8 million. Both reported more than $1 million to spend in the final weeks, and political committees have poured millions more into the race.
Sisolak drew maximum $10,000 contributions from several MGM Resorts International and Boyd Gaming-related companies.
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Lombardo’s campaign and political committees that support him have received millions of dollars in support from wealthy Las Vegas-based hotel magnate Robert Bigelow.