By Jim EllisSept. 22, 2021 — The Silver State of Nevada has been home to some of the nation’s closest statewide elections during the past decade. In almost half of all Nevada statewide political contests since 2012, both party’s nominees have won their elections with only plurality support.
With that backdrop, ex-US Sen. Dean Heller (R), who lost his seat to current incumbent Jacky Rosen (D) in 2018, is making a political comeback attempt in next year’s governor’s race. Heller officially announced his plans Monday after the story broke last week that he would become a candidate.
Part of the announcement came as a surprise, and has more to do with winning the Republican primary than for what he hopes will be a challenge to incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak (D). Heller, who throughout his career had aligned himself with the pro-choice caucus, pointedly spoke approvingly of the new Texas law governing abortion practices.
In the Republican primary, Heller faces Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee among others. At this point, Gov. Sisolak has no announced Democratic opposition.
According to a July OH Predictive Insights poll (July 6-11; 783 registered Nevada voters), which is the latest Nevada gubernatorial survey available, Gov. Sisolak recorded a 52:39 percent job approval ratio. As with most polls in today’s politics, the bulk of support comes from members of one’s own party, but in this case, 30 percent of the sampled Republicans also gave the governor a positive review.
Gov. Sisolak, a former Clark County Commissioner who previously served as a member of the Nevada Board of Regents, was elected the state’s chief executive three years ago with a 49-45 percent win over then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R), grandson of former US senator and Nevada governor, Paul Laxalt (R). Laxalt is also making a political comeback in 2022, running against incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto (D) for the US Senate.
Both the ’22 Nevada governor and US Senate have the potential of ending in close fashion. Since 2012, inclusive, 18 statewide races have been conducted. Democrats won 10 and Republicans’ eight, but six of the GOP victories came in the Republican wave year of 2014 when the Nevada Democratic turnout proved particularly low.
During that five-election span, Democrats, even in winning more races, have averaged just 45.2 percent of the vote, while Republicans, again largely because of the 2014 sweep, recorded a mean win percentage of 49.0. Interestingly, candidates from both parties have only individually reached or exceeded the 50 percent mark in five of the decade’s 18 statewide campaigns. The Democrats high-water mark during that period is then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 52.4 percent in 2012. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, as the GOP’s top vote-getter, would record just under a whopping 71 percent in his sole re-election campaign just two years later.
The strength of the GOP gubernatorial field and Laxalt, at this point, appearing to be the clear Republican leader in the Senate nomination contest, suggests that incumbents Sisolak and Cortez Masto are again in for tough campaigns that could end with the winner finishing below the 50 percent threshold. Therefore, Nevada will once more be a state to watch in 2022.
Prior to serving in the Senate, Heller had begun his third term in the US House when then-Gov. Sandoval appointed him to replace resigned Sen. John Ensign (R) in 2011. He then won the 2012 statewide with just 45.9 percent of the vote, and would lose six years later with 45.4 percent. Prior to his federal elective service, Heller served three four-year terms as Nevada’s Secretary of State, after being twice elected to the Nevada State Assembly. Though he will be a formidable candidate in the GOP primary, his winning the party nomination is far from guaranteed despite his long career as a Republican office holder.