Thursday, March 3, 2016 | 11:25 p.m.
If the six Republican candidates for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District expected an easy night at their first public debate Thursday evening, they didn’t get one.
The debate officially kicked off the heated primary battle the candidates face over the next three months. Not only did candidates confront tough questions from the moderators on their records — or lack thereof — they also faced direct and sometimes personal attacks from their fellow candidates.
State Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson had to defend his vote for the state’s largest-ever tax increase to pay for reforms for the state’s education system. Assemblywoman Michele Fiore was asked why she only seems to focus on two issues: guns and federal lands.
Former congressional candidates Annette Teijeiro and Danny Tarkanian were asked about their previous runs for Congress and why this time would be different. Andy Matthews, the former president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, had to explain why this was his first run for public office, while Air Force veteran Kerry Bowers had to defend what a moderator called his “quixotic” campaign for president that he launched in 2014.
Here’s an overview of how the candidates responded to those questions and more during the debate at the Siena Conservatives meeting in Summerlin. The candidates are listed in the order they gave their opening remarks.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson
Roberson called himself “the most accomplished conservative in the race,” listing off collective bargaining, public pension, tort and education reform among his accomplishments during the last legislative session. He also touted the health of the state as a whole, calling it the fifth best tax-climate state in the country for business and saying the state is spending at 1992 state government spending levels, adjusted for inflation.
“It was a session that every Republican should be proud of, a session of historic victories,” Roberson said. “I’m running on my record as a conservative.”
But it was Roberson’s record that several of the candidates went after. Tarkanian attacked Roberson in his opening question not only for voting in favor of the tax increase during the session, but also for approving the tax breaks and incentives passed to lure electric car manufacturers Tesla and Faraday Future to the state. Teijeiro seized on those same points, going so far as to accuse Roberson of lying to the crowd.
Roberson responded by pointing to his record, saying he passed some of the “most conservative legislative accomplishments” in the history of the state. In defending the tax increase vote, he pointed to Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California agreed to the largest tax increase in the history of any state at that point. Several members of the crowd interrupted, shouting back at him, “You’re not Ronald Reagan.”
Assemblywoman Michele Fiore
Fiore touted herself as a “real” conservative, not a “campaign conservative,” pointing to her vote against the major tax increase during the last session. She said that the nation is “sick and tired of establishment leaders that run on conservative principles and then govern like a Democrat,” citing the successes of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as two byproducts of that sentiment.
But Fiore had to defend the breadth of knowledge that she would take to Congress after a moderator said that she had mainly focused on two issues: guns and the federal ownership of land. Her response was simple: “Just as I fight for our Second Amendment right and our First Amendment right for freedom of the press and free speech, I will fight as diligent and hard for everything that’s important for you.”
She also defended her recent trip to Oregon, where she traveled recently to support Ammon Bundy, the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and his supporters. “You can betcha that I’m gonna come getcha,” Fiore said. “I will always protect my own people."
Teijeiro went after Fiore during the debate, criticizing her for voting in favor of the Faraday tax break legislation. She also alluded to Fiore when she said, “We can’t solve problems by going and shooting people in the head,” referencing remarks Fiore made in December that many took to mean that she was advocating the shooting of Syrian refugees in the head.
Fiore interrupted her, telling her that her time was up, the bell was ringing and to put her mic down. “I find it very sad when anyone up here cannot run on their own merits, and they just attack others,” Fiore said.
Former NPRI President Andy Matthews
Matthews has never run for public office, but he tried to use that to his advantage Thursday night.
“Proven principled conservative outsiders can take on our corrupt political system and put forward the solutions our country needs,” Matthews said.
He criticized the federal government for taxing too much, spending too much and regulating too much, saying the Republican Party has “failed to effectively fight back.” He added that he will implement the conservative principles he advocated for at NPRI in Washington.
On education, Matthews said he would abolish the federal Department of Education and the Common Core education standards and turn those responsibilities over to the states.
“They are the ones that understand best the problems and challenges on the ground,” Matthews said. “I certainly don’t trust some bureaucrat sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C.”
Matthews defended his newcomer status by saying that he’s running an “ideas-driven campaign.”
Dr. Annette Teijeiro
Teijeiro described herself as a unifying force for the party, saying she is the only one who could “shatter the labels” put on Republicans, like the party’s “war on women” or “war on immigrants.”
She framed herself — “a low-income, bilingual Latina doctor” — as the only candidate able to reach out to the Hispanic community in Nevada. “We need something that is different. Someone with experience. Someone that can unite over 25 percent of the Hispanics that are in this state that will be voting and continue to grow voting,” Teijeiro said.
In response to a question on immigration, Teijeiro, whose father emigrated from Cuba, advocated for securing the nation’s borders and tracking immigrants inside of the United States as first steps for immigration reform. “We can’t spend all of your Social Security money and all your Medicare money to actually remove 11 million or 20 million people,” Teijeiro said. “We do have to negotiate that. That’s absolutely true.”
She spent much of the debate going after Tarkanian, Roberson and Fiore, and spent her closing remarks individually attacking each candidate, with the exception of Bowers, who she thanked for his military service, drawing fire from Fiore.
“This chick can’t run on her own merits, so the only thing she does is attack all of us,” Fiore said.
Teijiero shot back: “I’m not a chick, I’m actually a medical doctor. I’m an anaesthesiologist.”
The focus of Tarkanian’s message Thursday night was clear: the Republican-controlled Legislature and the state’s Republican governor failed during the legislative session.
“I’m disgusted by the politicians who promise one thing when they run for office and when they get elected do the complete opposite,” Tarkanian said.
He specifically criticized the tax increases passed by the Legislature and said the state had taken the wrong steps in spending money on anti-bullying programs and on English-language programs in schools instead of increasing teacher salaries. Tarkanian also said he would “absolutely” support a flat tax or fair tax and eliminating tax breaks and credits to the “powerful, the influential and the privileged.”
Although Tarkanian has previously unsuccessfully run for Congress, he said the fact that he lost and is coming back shows he’s “determined, persistent and resilient.”
In response to Tarkanian’s criticisms, Roberson accused him of being “very good at giving you half-truths.”
Air Force veteran Kerry Bowers
After launching a bid for the presidency in 2014, Bowers said he’s running for Congress because he loves his country and he believes in his 10-step plan to fix the country.
The moderator called Bowers’ campaign for president “quixotic” and asked why this campaign should be taken more seriously. His response was that because he has never held elected office before, the national news media wouldn’t write about his campaign.
“I’m not a celebrity, not a former senator, not a congressman,” Bowers said, adding that there have been presidents who never held elected office before they took office.
Bowers said that, as a 30-year veteran of the military and the husband of another veteran, he would advocate for strong national defense. He said that starts with the first item on his list: “Restore the federal character of government.”