RENO, Nev. (AP) — Nevada's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Joe Lombardo, sought in a debate on Sunday to distance himself from former President Donald Trump over his lies about the 2020 election, but said Trump's policies were better than those under the Biden administration, which he blames for inflation and rising interest rates.
“It’s an abysmal failure. In my opinion Trump moved the country forward," Lombardo said. But when asked whether Trump was “a great president,” Lombardo hesitated, saying, “I wouldn’t say great, I think he was a sound president."
Lombardo said he was bothered by Trump's false claims of a stolen election, saying that he was “not shying away from that" and agreeing that Trump lying about election fraud undermined the confidence of the voters.
Trump is scheduled to campaign for Lombardo next weekend, setting up a potentially awkward meeting.
The debate with incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was a mostly cordial exchange animated by subjects that are defining midterm races across the country: abortion rights, the economy and inflation, education and crime, which by some measures is up in the Las Vegas area where Lombardo has spent his career in law enforcement and has served as sheriff since 2015.
A third of registered voters in Nevada are Democrats, while nonpartisan voters barely edge out Republicans, making the contest among the nation's most closely watched. Nonpartisan registration has outpaced both major parties this year and Democratic registration has largely stalled, with some switching their registration to Republican.
Echoing efforts by Democrats nationwide, Sisolak sought to make abortion access a campaign centerpiece, saying voters “have a clear choice in this race.” It’s a tricky topic for Lombardo, who has touted since the Republican primary that he would govern through a “pro-life lens” but has flip-flopped on certain measures.
Sisolak is a staunch supporter of abortion rights and has worked to make Nevada a safe haven for the procedure as neighboring Utah, Arizona and Idaho have restricted access. He has attempted to paint Lombardo as an anti-abortion extremist. A big screen outside the debate said “Joe Lombardo wants to ban contraception."
Lombardo will keep contraceptives “accessible," he said on his website in a 106-word explanation for his abortion stance that during the primary race had three words: “Joe is pro-life.”
Lombardo told KRNV-TV that he would overturn Sisolak’s June executive order that protects out-of-state abortion patients and in-state providers. Days later, he told The Associated Press only that he would view it through a “pro-life lens” but did not cite specific action. In a letter posted on his website last week, he said that he would uphold the order.
Earlier this month, Lombardo said he would oppose a national abortion ban proposed by South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham.
Lombardo specified Sunday that he supports laws that require parents to be notified if a minor is having an abortion and legislation to require a waiting period between consultation and abortion. He said he does not support mandatory ultrasounds.
A state law allows abortions up to 24 weeks into pregnancy. Lombardo said “there's nothing the governor can do” to change that law.
Sisolak scoffed at a question about whether he supports abortions at 28, 30 or 32 weeks. He said it was a “volatile” question to ask, given that the vast majority of abortions occur before 21 weeks, and called it “political theater.”
CRIME AND PUBLIC SAFETY
Sisolak has the final say on criminal justice bills that come out of Carson City. Lombardo implements those laws in Clark County.
Lombardo said crime decreased for six years there but has climbed in the last two years, which he blamed on a Democratic-controlled state government that has passed “soft-on-crime legislation,” including a law that raised the dollar amount for a theft to be considered a felony from $650 to $1,200 and increased the weight of drugs that qualify for felony trafficking.
Debate moderator Jon Ralston, CEO of the Nevada Independent, noted that Lombardo’s sheriff’s department was neutral on the bill. Lombardo said his department had to compromise, "knowing that it was still bad legislation.”
Ralston noted that Sisolak once called Lombardo the “best sheriff in America.” But Sisolak said Lombardo's policies have changed as he sought the governor's office.
“People are not safer today than they were eight years ago,” when Lombardo became sheriff, he said. “I met with a roundtable of local businesses, who told me one of the main problems they have is burglary. They can’t get (Las Vegas police) to even respond to burglary because it’s so far down on their list.”
Lombardo said that was “absolutely false,” and that criminal justice reforms mean police have more burglaries to respond to.
The Democratic governor defended his decision to close nonessential businesses at the start of the pandemic. He said he remembered looking at the Las Vegas Strip and “knowing that if I signed this executive order I’m gonna shut down the Strip, (and) put 250,000 people out of work.”
“Those lives were more important to me,” said Sisolak, who is endorsed by the Nevada Chamber of Commerce. “The economy came back. Those lives we could never regain. There’s 11,051 empty seats at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner right now.”
Lombardo has criticized the longevity of school and business closures and Sisolak’s determinations about which businesses were essential, calling it “too draconian.”
“We didn’t have to be a beta agency or a beta state or a beta department. You can rely on what other people are doing in other states that were showing success," he said. “I believe the governor just solely relied on what (California Gov.) Gavin Newsom advised him."
Lombardo and Sisolak both said they support raising teacher pay. Lombardo said he would back a raise tied to the Consumer Price Index of around 2-3%, but said the exact amount would be negotiated. Sisolak said he would increase starting teacher pay and negotiate raises “north of 3%.”
The sheriff said he would restore a provision in Nevada’s “Read by Grade 3” program that holds back third graders who don’t read at grade level, and supports an expansion of charter schools, which teachers’ unions oppose.
Lombardo, like other Republicans, strongly supports voucher programs that provide public money for students to attend private schools, and said parents should have options besides “failing schools.”
Nevada has long placed near the bottom of national education rankings. The Clark County School District, with 326,000 students, is the fifth in size nationally and has weathered staff shortages. Lombardo has indicated he would consider breaking up CCSD.
Sisolak said the state can’t afford to drain funding from the cash-strapped public school system, noting that private schools “don’t have to take the students that are more expensive to teach,” such as those with learning disabilities or English learners.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit program that places journalists in newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.