Former U.S. Senator Dean Heller Booed at Nevada Gubernatorial Debate After Trump Comments

Former U.S. Senator Dean Heller was booed during a gubernatorial debate on Thursday in Nevada.

The debate, held in Reno, was between eight Republican hopefuls vying for the party's spot in the race against current Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak. Heller, a former ally of former President Donald Trump who gained scrutiny within the party after attempting to preserve the Affordable Care Act, was greeted with jeers despite his right-leaning statements. Despite the resulting tensions between him and Trump, he did his best on Thursday to persuade the audience that they were still close with each other, telling the booing audience that he had spoken to him a few hours earlier.

He speculated the majority of the harassment came from supporters of Reno attorney and governor hopeful Joey Gilbert who has been vocal about opposing vaccines amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and was present during the U.S. Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. Despite the heckling, Heller kept positive about his future in the race.

"They know who's in front in this race and they're gonna boo the frontrunner at every chance they get," he told reporters.

Other gubernatorial hopefuls include Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore and venture capitalist Guy Nohra.

Heller and Trump
Former U.S. Senator Dean Heller was booed during a gubernatorial debate on January 7, 2022, in Nevada for his Trump comments. Above, former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures towards former Heller while delivering remarks on health care and Republicans' inability thus far to replace or repeal the Affordable Care Act during a lunch with members of Congress in the State Dining Room of the White House on July 19, 2017, in Washington, DC. Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images

Like many Republicans running throughout the country running in the 2022 midterm elections, Heller has tacked rightward on issues like election policy and immigration. He began the debate by attributing what he said was unprecedented voter enthusiasm to the "Trump effect."

Gilbert and Fiore's claims about "critical race theory" being taught in schools, about voter fraud and Gilbert's arguing politicians needed to "take the handcuffs off of our (police) officers and let them do their jobs" won applause.

So did their one-liners and digs at Sisolak and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the sole Republican candidate who did not attend Thursday's debate.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that connects the country's history, including the legacy of slavery, to contemporary laws and racism. Administrators in Nevada have repeatedly denied it is taught, but it is frequently used as shorthand by parents opposed to incorporating concepts like equity and multiculturalism in school curriculums.

Fiore, Gilbert, Heller and Lombardo are among a long list of Republicans hoping to unseat Sisolak, a first-term Democrat who won by 5.1 percentage points in 2018. Republicans hope nationwide dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden's economic and social agenda coupled with pandemic frustrations will drive voter turnout and return them to power in Washington, D.C., and swing states.

"Given the disaster that the Sisolak administration has been in the state, people are paying attention," said venture capitalist Guy Nohra, another candidate. "I know our side is going to be really fired up. I could see it tonight. I could feel it tonight."

In Nevada, the economy lives and dies based on sectors like tourism and live entertainment that cannot easily transition to remote work. The state's 6.8 percent unemployment rate ranks 50th in the nation and 66,200 less workers are employed at casinos and hotels than before the pandemic.

Candidates connected mandates in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus to the state's sluggish recovery. An indoor mask requirement is in effect in 14 of Nevada's 17 counties. The state also mandates masks for K-12 schools in the most populous two counties, home to Las Vegas and Reno, while letting smaller counties set their own policies.

"When I say ban vaccine mandates, understand that comes with economic growth. Because when you ban vaccine mandates, we get our teachers, our hospitals and all of our staff back to work. We have folks that have been forced to resign because they refuse the vaccine," Fiore said.

Republicans also previewed how policing and education will likely be central campaign issues.

Gilbert, the Reno attorney, said the next governor not only should ban "critical race theory" but also consider funneling education dollars toward vouchers parents who wish to enroll their children outside traditional public schools could use.

"'Read by Grade 3,' charter schools, school choice—it's all nonsense. At the end of the day, it's just another bad option for these kids. I want vouchers. Until these public schools have to compete, there's no incentive. Merely just saying get rid of CRT," Gilbert said, referring to critical race theory, "that doesn't go far enough."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sisolak Super Bowl
Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak speaks during a news conference announcing that Allegiant Stadium will host the 2024 Super Bowl at Allegiant Stadium on December 15, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nine Republicans are hoping to run against the current Democratic governor in November's elections. Photo by David Becker/Getty Images