Las Vegas Sun

December 10, 2018

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Analysis:

After bruising race, Sisolak emerges to confront a well-rested foe

Sisolak

John Locher / AP

Supporters of Clark County Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak cheer at an election night party, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Sisolak Wins Democratic Primary for Governor

Veronica and Ron Wasak show their support for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak during an election watch party at the Aria convention center Tuesday, June 12, 2018. Launch slideshow »

The votes have been counted and the results posted, so the primary battle between Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani is technically over.

But it’s not history. It could be felt all the way to November.

Sisolak won tonight in the Democratic primary for Nevada governor, but the victory took months and cost millions — more than Gov. Brian Sandoval spent through both the primary and the general election in winning his first term.

And now, having poured $6.3 million into convincing Democrat voters he was a progressive, he faces the dual challenge of replenishing his resources and convincing voters across parties that he’s a moderate.

Oh, and one more thing: His Republican opponent in November, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, comes into the general election campaign like a battle tank.

Laxalt, facing light competition, spent the equivalent of couch-cushion change in crushing his competition in the GOP primary.

He received Donald Trump’s endorsement, and the donations he’ll receive from the NRA and conservative Republican groups will come like they’re being shot from a firehose.

Then there’s Laxalt’s rural appeal, which carried him to victory in 2014 despite his losses in Clark and Washoe counties.

So Sisolak, the city candidate in an election that could easily fall along rural-vs.-urban battle, won’t be able to sit back in Clark County and cruise. His travel itinerary figures to be fairly packed in the next five months, which would add yet more strain to his campaign budget.

But none of this is to suggest Sisolak is out of bullets, or that Laxalt is bulletproof.

Laxalt’s key weakness is one that money can’t buy him out of. In a purple state, he’s so far out on the right fringe that he’s practically off the spectrum.

His record on immigration issues, gun safety, abortion and other topics position him awkwardly in a state that voted two years ago for Hillary Clinton and approved a ballot measure for expanded background checks on firearms purchases. Laxalt, who spoke at a national NRA meeting in 2017, campaigned against the ballot measure.

Laxalt didn’t sign on to a letter of state attorneys in support of Dreamers — unlike Gov. Brian Sandoval, who added his name to a similar letter from a number of state governors — and signed Nevada onto an amicus brief defending a restrictive Texas abortion law without consulting with Sandoval.

Already, there’s an indication that the Sisolak-Laxalt race will hinge on who’s seen as the more extreme candidate. After Sisolak’s win, the Laxalt camp issued a statement calling him a “fringe” politician.

But Laxalt’s presence on the ballot will no doubt energize immigration activists, gun-safety advocates and other progressive groups, which should work in Sisolak’s favor. If those organizations work as hard for Sisolak as they did in tipping Nevada to Clinton in 2016, he’ll get a huge boost.

This is a race where debates and other candidate events could also be hugely influential, and Sisolak could have an edge in that respect.

Sisolak is believed to be far more comfortable than Laxalt in unscripted appearances and dealing with unfriendly or indifferent audiences — a perception that Laxalt fed when he made a fuss about the rules for what was supposed to have been the only televised primary debate between Republican candidates. The debate was called off, leading to complaints that Laxalt derailed it despite being such a strong front-runner that he had little to lose.

Sisolak-Giunchigliani had a certain Hillary-Bernie feel to it, with Giunchigliani viewed as the more progressive candidate and Sisolak the one with more appeal to mainstream voters.

For Sisolak, a key to November will be whether Democrats unify in support of him.

Meanwhile, while it probably won’t happen, Laxalt should send a gift package to Giunchigliani. Thanks to her, he goes into the general election with a leg up.