CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Republican Dean Heller announced plans to run for governor in Nevada, declaring Monday that he would oppose state mandates on masks and vaccines and tighten voting laws if elected to lead the battleground state.
Heller has historically positioned himself as a moderate and drawn attention for clashes with former President Donald Trump. His Monday remarks — including those in support of voter ID laws and a new Texas law restricting abortions — signal his preparedness to push issues galvanizing the Republican base.
In a converted warehouse where he worked during his youth that now serves as an office for the Carson City Republican Party, the former U.S. Senator railed against Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s coronavirus policies and blamed him for Nevada’s nation-topping unemployment rate, rising crime and suicide rates.
The pandemic has vaulted governors into a spotlight as the public has debated the merits of state-level executive actions they’re able to enact. With 36 up for reelection next year, the 2022 midterms will serve as a referendum on their performance and state-based policies in place to contain the virus.
Nevada, where President Joe Biden won by 2.4 percentage points, is a top pick-up opportunity in 2022, said Republican Governor’s Association spokesperson Maddie Anderson. Midterm voters typically swing away from the party that controls the White House. Anderson called Sisolak’s coronavirus policies “heavy handed” and hard on businesses.
Heller, who lost Nevada’s 2018 Senate race to Democrat Jacky Rosen by five percentage points, has for months been expected to enter the race. He immediately becomes the most well-known candidate on a long list of challengers hoping to unseat Sisolak. Other Republicans running in next year's June primary include Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, attorney Joey Gilbert, and businessmen Guy Nohra.
Democrats are savoring the crowded field, hoping it forces Republicans to attack each other.
“Republicans have found themselves in a crowded primary they will have to fight through for the next nine months," Sisolak spokesperson Molly Forgey said.
Heller said mandates and closures had burdened businesses and hurt schoolchildren. If elected, he said he’d reverse them but allow private businesses to issue whatever mandates they chose.
“Let me make this very clear: you will not see on the door of any convenience store, you will not see on the door on any bank, you will not see on the door of any box store, a message that you have to wear a mask because it’s been mandated by Governor Heller,” he said.
In Nevada, most businesses remain subject to a statewide indoor mask mandate but are not closed. Masks are required for most public school students. Sisolak allowed rural districts to set their own masking policies.
Last week California voters reaffirmed support for Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recall election driven largely by frustration with school and business closures. Like Heller, Newsom’s chief Republican rival vowed to suspend any mask or vaccine mandates if elected.
Though Heller, who is vaccinated, wouldn’t require jabs, he called vaccines “the only way you’re going to fight this disease.”
He attributed vaccine resistance to distrust in government and likened it to how many Republicans still question the 2020 election even though investigations and legal challenges have yielded no evidence of widespread fraud. Republicans in Nevada filed lawsuits challenging the results and a decision from the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature to mail active voters ballots ahead of Election Day, claiming it invited tampering. All of the cases were dismissed. Election officials have repeatedly denied systemic fraud.
The afterlife of 2020 — and Trump’s persistent claims the election was marred by fraud despite evidence — continues to fire up Republicans. Heller's remarks mirrors those from candidates for governor and U.S. Senate nationwide who have taken up election fraud as a central campaign issue. Candidates for governor in Virginia and the U.S. Senate in Arizona and Ohio have staked out positions about “election integrity” ranging from concerns about voter rolls to claiming outright the race was stolen.
Heller did not directly answer a question about whether the election was stolen but said it was “a mess.”
As governor, the first thing he would do is issue an executive order requiring voter ID in all elections, Heller said. Since 2020, Republicans have introduced measures in at least nine states to enact stricter voter ID laws, seizing on last year's unsubstantiated claims of fraud and hoping to address widespread distrust many of their voters have about elections.
Heller repeatedly likened Republican distrust in the result to Democrats' post-2016 reaction. In January 2017, seven Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives voted against certifying Trump’s victory in multiple states, but, unlike Trump, then-candidate Hillary Clinton conceded the race and acknowledged his victory.
The former U.S. Senator said his anti-fraud credentials extended back to his tenure as Nevada’s Secretary of State. In 1998, Heller ousted a Reno-area election official who admitted to improperly opening sealed ballots. On Monday he said that he would’ve done the same to Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria.
Gloria was the target of multiple lawsuits after the election. He upset Republicans because he only allowed poll watchers in designated areas during vote-counting. Gloria said those restrictions were necessary to allow for safety and social distancing.
“I would have been tempted to petition to the county commissioners to remove this guy,” Heller said.
AP writer Michael Blood contributed from Los Angeles. Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.