Former U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) will likely announce his 2022 gubernatorial campaign today. Heller is set to join an already crowded Republican primary field, and this leaves us asking: How exactly will Heller stand out?
While we await Heller’s answer, let’s return to California and assess some more fallout from last week’s recall election. As we examine the crowded field of Republicans who tried and failed to unseat California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), we can notice some striking similarities between them and the Republicans who are running against Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak (D).
First, here’s an update on the California Recall.
As of this morning, California Governor Gavin Newsom is sporting a 63%-37% landslide victory in the recall election. Even though Republicans have gained some ground in the past six days thanks to the in-person traditional election day votes breaking heavily in their favor, their problem is that the number of in-person September 14 votes and the number of in-person early votes both pale in comparison to the number of vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots that county election offices have been receiving. Though California election officials may have as much as 2.5 million more (mostly late VBM) ballots left to count, early signs suggest that the late VBM’s are breaking much more Democratic than the in-person traditional election day votes, and only somewhat less Democratic than the earlier VBM’s.
In order to have a realistic chance at defeating Newsom in the recall, Republicans needed to: narrow Democratic margins in the typically very blue San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast, and Los Angeles County; win by healthy margins in former Republican strongholds like Ventura, Orange, and San Diego Counties that have more recently become favorable turf for Democrats; and run up the score in the Central Valley and in the rural Northern California counties where we expected Republicans to win big all along.
While Republicans did get big wins out of rural Northern California, they’re falling short everywhere else. Even in my original homeland of Orange County that used to be called “The Most Republican County in America”, Newsom appears likely to win by a slightly bigger margin than he did in 2018, just as Newsom is currently on track to win statewide by at least as much as he did in 2018. If California Republicans can’t even beat their 2018 score in areas like Orange and San Diego Counties where they used to dominate, then why are we supposed to believe they’re well equipped for 2022?
Oh, wait: Dean Heller is running for something again?
Now, let’s return home to Nevada for a moment. Dean Heller will almost certainly officially announce his 2022 gubernatorial campaign later today. During the summer Heller suggested that he’ll “tout his bipartisan credentials” in this latest campaign, yet this comes after former President Donald Trump effectively disowned Heller following his 2018 loss to current Senator Jacky Rosen (D). Late yesterday, Heller dropped his initial 2022 campaign video that more or less amounts of a mashup of “Generic Republican Talking Points”.
In his early days as a state legislator, then as Nevada Secretary of State, Dean Heller developed a reputation as a relatively moderate and dependably professional public servant. But when he first ran for the U.S. House in 2006, Heller began shifting far to the right in order to win what ultimately became a hotly contested Republican Primary in the Second Congressional District (NV-02) against a “fringe” backbencher legislator by the name of Sharron Angle (R). During his time in the House, Heller racked up a much more conservative record in order to solidify his position among Republican voters in the state’s reddest Congressional District.
But when then Governor Brian Sandoval (R) appointed Heller to fill the Senate vacancy left behind by John Ensign (R) in 2011, Heller seemed to begin his return to his more moderate roots. Upon his narrow 2012 election victory for a full term, Heller sought to reestablish his “moderate, bipartisan” street cred on issues like immigration reform and renewable energy. Then in 2016, he gave the impression that he was “Never Trump” when he publicly declared himself “99% against Trump” during the presidential campaign.
Less than a year later, that 1% magically became 100% when Heller claimed he voted for Trump in 2016, then when Heller went all in to give Trump the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) repeal legislation he wanted to sign. Even once Sandoval publicly declared his opposition to ACA repeal, Heller continued to pursue ACA repeal, including after then Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) twice rejected the ACA repeal legislation that Heller championed. Heller’s steadfast commitment to Obamacare repeal initially pleased Donald Trump enough to campaign for him in 2018, but Trump just turned around and disavowed Heller all over again following his loss to Rosen.
How did the former San Diego Mayor and one-time “California Republican savior” become such an also-ran “some dude”? Here’s the cautionary tale of Kevin Faulconer.
Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor who is a GOP contender in the California recall, says he will figure out "what's next" for him as results lean in Gov. Newsom's favor.
— CBS News (@CBSNews) September 15, 2021
As we examined last week, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R) seemed to check all the right boxes upon his entry into the California Recall special gubernatorial election. As the mayor of a city where Democrats have gradually developed a consistent advantage up and down the ballot, Republicans seemed to luck out with a “French Vanilla” moderate who already had a track record of winning Democratic and independent crossover votes in San Diego.
Yet as soon as Faulconer entered the recall replacement race, he stated that he voted for Trump in 2020. Just four years prior, Faulconer declared, “I could never vote for Trump.” Throughout the campaign, Faulconer proceeded into additional policy backflips – on housing and “YIMBY”, immigrant civil rights, criminal justice, and more. Early on Faulconer’s “extreme political makeover” seemed to pay off, as he attracted a contingent of wealthy Republican super-donors and appeared to have a chance of winning the California Republican Party endorsement.
I mean, that was *supposed* to be Kevin Faulconer. But the former mayor of San Diego could barely attract Republicans compared to Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio host. Says a lot about the state of the California GOP (and perhaps something about the national party base). https://t.co/XbIttNoCd7
— Geoffrey Skelley (@geoffreyvs) September 15, 2021
Kevin Faulconer, the only moderate Republican in this race, just gave a little goodbye speech. This recall was never about moderate or non-racist Republicanism. It was meant as a far right white supremacist takeover.
— Jean Guerrero (@jeanguerre) September 15, 2021
By the time of the California Republican Party endorsement vote, Faulconer essentially pulled out of the endorsement race, and his supporters switched their position to “no endorsement” upon realizing that they were outnumbered by supporters of talk radio host Larry Elder (R) and Assembly Member Kevin Kiley (R). Faulconer tried to spin this pullout as the result of no prominent Democrats running in the recall replacement contest, but Faulconer’s opponents viewed it more as an attempted face-save after getting outflanked by a talk radio star and a lesser-known state legislator.
Speaking of Larry Elder, his Republican Party stardom rose as Faulconer’s faded. While Faulconer seemed to change course again and attempt to appeal to Democratic voters with his pointed attacks on Elder, Elder solidified his hold over California Republicans with a very Trump-esque strategy of dressing up his boilerplate far-right platform with “anti-establishment swagger”. And after a barrage of polls showed Faulconer falling far behind Elder, and even slipping below the YouTuber “Meet Kevin” Kevin Paffrath (D) who had no official Democratic Party backing (as his pro-recall stance hurt his standing in the party), Faulconer basically faded into also-ran status as Elder essentially became the California GOP’s new de-facto leader.
Dean Heller, meet Kevin Faulconer. And, oh look, here’s Joe Lombardo. None one of you can get away with trying to have it both ways on Trumpism.
Both Dean Heller and Kevin Faulconer originally made names for themselves as moderate, “bipartisan”, and “vanilla”. Yet in their quest to appeal to Donald Trump and his base voters who crave more fascist “spice”, neither one of them found a way to simultaneously satiate Trump and his far-right base and maintain crossover appeal to more moderate non-Republican voters.
It’s a similar story for Clark County Sheriff and Las Vegas Metro Police Chief Joe Lombardo (R). In the not-so-distant past, Lombardo claimed to care about fixing Metro Police’s long-standing problems with institutionalized racism and police brutality, preventing Metro from being used as a state and county funded instrument for Trump’s raids on immigrant communities, passing stronger gun violence prevention laws, and even raising more tax revenue in order to better fund Metro programs. Yet throughout his gubernatorial campaign so far, Joe Lombardo has repeatedly contradicted himself and flip-flopped on a number of issues, just to appeal to Trump’s base.
While Joe Lombardo has been busy with his extreme political makeover, and as Lombardo’s current campaign staff work to figure out how to better position him against their former boss, professional boxer turned reality TV hopeful turned lawyer turned proud insurrectionist and anti-vaccine activist Joey Gilbert (R) has been relentless in labeling Heller and Lombardo as “Never Trump” and “RINO’s”. While Lombardo attempted to give the impression of popularity at his campaign office opening last Saturday in advance of Heller’s big event today, Gilbert continued to draw far-right crowds and grow his online social media clout. And despite the critical mass of “traditional Republican establishment” players picking Heller or Lombardo – including Nevada Republican Party Michael McDonald’s odd quasi-endorsement speech at Lombardo’s event last Saturday – both of them remain at risk of meeting the same political fate as Kevin Faulconer after he tried and failed to have it both ways on Trump.
Finally, here are a few lessons for Nevada Republicans, courtesy of California Republicans (and Donald Trump).
With such a crowded field, and with no one seemingly capable of clearing this field, it’s just too murky and too soon for me to declare any one favorite in the Republican primary here in Nevada. With that said, California does have a pretty impressive record as a political trendsetter, and I can already spot some trends that took hold during the recall that already seem to be reverberating here.
For one, there’s simply no way to have it both ways on Trumpism. Larry Elder briefly tried to publicly distance himself from Trump, but he quickly abandoned that strategy in order to make Trump’s base his own. This leads to another important lesson: “Purity” matters far more than “electability” in Republican circles these days. No matter how much Kevin Faulconer tried to make hay out of Elder’s incendiary rhetoric at the debates, and no matter how many debates Elder missed (as in, all of them), Faulconer’s rhetorical gymnastics proved to be no match for Elder telling Republican voters everything they wanted to hear.
Here’s another lesson: Past successes offer no guarantee of a brighter future. California Republicans thought they could pull off another recall victory in 2021 because they managed to do so in 2003, yet former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) himself has pointed out the stark difference between his own embrace of moderation and the California GOP’s current embrace of Trump and Elder. Just because Dean Heller never lost an election before 2018 doesn’t negate the fact that he lost to Jacky Rosen in 2018. Just because Joe Lombardo attracted bipartisan support in his past campaigns doesn’t mean he can attract significant bipartisan support with his more Trumpist campaign now. Just because Nevada Republicans never previously nominated a “political outsider” like Joey Gilbert doesn’t mean Heller and Lombardo will have an easy time fending off Gilbert and the other “outsider” candidates next year.
And finally, there’s this: Sooner or later, you have to pair your style with some actual substance. Despite the Trump campaign’s relentless political posturing online and offline, Trump’s own record played a role in President Joe Biden’s victory last year. Despite Elder’s efforts to razzle-dazzle far-right “influencers” and political reporters with his campaign style, Newsom took full advantage of Elder’s problematic substance and went on to win the recall election. If Nevada Republicans refuse to take note of what just happened next door, and if they decline to even try to offer voters a vision of governance beyond mere “own the libs” memes, they may yet provide Sisolak and his fellow Nevada Democrats some more time to polish up their own.