Nevada Economy Revving Up, But Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak Faces Tough Reelection

On May 1, Las Vegas, the beating heart of Nevada, announced that its capacity at bars and restaurants was shooting up from 50% to 80%. A few days later casinos announced their capacity was finally back to the pre-pandemic normal.

In fact, a Google search on Thursday for prospective travelers wondering "Is Las Vegas Back?" showed a vlogger on YouTube declaring that it is indeed 100% back, as her video pans to show the lobby of the Bellagio hotel teeming with people.

Not many states are fortunate to have an economic engine like Vegas they can rev up when the time is right, and with long lines at job fairs and a hiring spree underway, it would seem to be a good time to be an incumbent up for reelection. But Democrats and Republicans in the state say that isn't necessarily the case for Governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, who has a tough reelection fight in store next year.

The source of bipartisan discontent with Sisolak was his handling of the state's unemployment system during the pandemic, which led to a deluge of unemployment applications and an enormous backlog of unpaid claims.

"That was huge and still is a point of anger towards Sisolak in both parties that made him public enemy number one," Andres Ramirez, a veteran Las Vegas Democratic strategist, told Newsweek. "Unemployment was high, the government did a terrible job of getting people their money, and Sisolak was persona non grata. But the state itself has been doing well."

James Campos, a former Trump appointee to the U.S. Department of Energy who was also appointed to Nevada governmental roles by former governor Brian Sandoval, compared the duality of an improving Nevada economy but rough ride ahead for Sisolak to Trump, who had "job growth up until the pandemic hit" and eventually lost in large part because of his leadership during the pandemic.

"There's a lot of sentiment out there by some voters that the shutdown of the state and the following more or less of California's overreaction put a lot of people in a tough position," he told Newsweek, adding that COVID-19 has changed long-held political conventional wisdom.

"Restaurants, casinos, the hospitality industry in general have suffered so much," Campos said, "which has changed the dynamic and the usual formula for political success."

Those who spoke to Newsweek said the anger aimed at Sisolak was real, but boom times could heal old wounds.

On Wednesday, Sisolak announced that Nevada had $586 million in additional revenue, after he ordered non-essential businesses to shut down when the coronavirus outbreak began.

"The stakes were high and the decisions were tough, but I knew that eventually, the day would come when I could say to my fellow Nevadans that method has paid off," Sisolak said in an address after Nevada's Economic Forum. "And Nevada, that day is today."

Rumors that Sisolak could be primaried by the ascendant progressive wing which swept to power in the Nevada Democratic Party, or by a centrist candidate who smelled blood in the water, were largely put to rest by a May 1 letter to the editor in the Las Vegas Sun by Judith Whitmer, the new chairwoman of the party.

Sisolak's "unwavering leadership" early on, she said, and "willingness to step up to the plate to take difficult but necessary action," put Nevada in position to reopen and recover.

Sisolak's defenders said that whether or not the governor drew the ire of Nevadans at the height of the pandemic, his numbers had improved, pointing to a March Las Vegas Review-Journal poll, a year after the pandemic began, which showed him at 48% approval, with 43% disapproving. Some 53% approved of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while 43% disapproved.

Those who spoke to Newsweek said Nevada's recovery from tough economic times typically takes longer than in some other states, because the last thing people do is go on vacation. They noted that former Governor Sandoval didn't announce the return of all the jobs that had been lost during the great recession of 2008-2009 until the end of 2015.

The fact that economic revenue is back is a key indicator of Sisolak's reelection chances, Democrats said, arguing that the economy will be even better by the time people are voting next year.

"In April, to be back to where we were pre-pandemic, that speaks a lot to Sisolak's ability to lead during a once-in-a-generation pandemic," said Molly Forgey, a Democratic operative and former communications director of the Nevada Democratic Party.

But state Republicans see an opportunity to snatch the governor's race, despite an improving economy.

"The shutdowns in this state were very aggressive. And while I do see industries starting to recover, businesses cannot forget that you were punched in the gut, and that's what the governor did really," said Irma Aguirre, a longtime Republican operative who hosted Trump in 2016 at her Mexican restaurant that closed operations in 2019.

"You have to balance the pandemic and keeping people safe," Aguirre told Newsweek. "They can't survive without businesses or jobs, and not allowing people to fend for themselves, that's really tough."

Nevada Republicans are looking to candidates like Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who in April said he was "kicking the tires" on a run, and Adam Laxalt, who lost to Sisolak by 4 points in 2018.

"Sheriff Joe Lombardo has a name statewide that is popular, he has kept us safe, and people in general trust his work," Aguirre said. "I think he has all of the credentials within the Republican party, that's the word on the street."

But as John Sadler wrote in the Las Vegas Sun in January, the unanswered question at the heart of the current political climate is, "Have Republicans won elections in the past four years because of President Donald Trump's influence or in spite of him?"

Since the election, Laxalt, for example, has fanned the flames of Trump's election fraud conspiracy, hitting Nevada Democrats for universal mail-balloting in a recent op-ed and claiming there was "ballot harvesting, unclear voter rolls," and "woefully insufficient signature verification."

The Democratic Governor's Association (DGA) told Newsweek that Nevada is one of its top races and is banking on Republicans to face a circular firing squad of their own based on how much fealty the candidates show to Trump and his pet causes, like the legitimacy of the election results.

Christina Amestoy, a spokesperson for the DGA, who previously worked for Sisolak, said the really interesting primary will be on the Republican side, where there is a strong and demanding Trump base.

"They're clamoring for someone like Adam Laxalt, who has talked about election fraud and the Capitol riot, there's a strong appetite for that," Amestoy told Newsweek, "where with Lombardo, I could see them saying he's soft on immigration, soft on guns, and I could see Trump getting engaged."

steve sisolak
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak gestures during a voter mobilization drive-in event at UNLV with Democratic U.S. Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on October 2, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images