Dean Heller and Adam Laxalt

To See Nevada’s Political Future, Look at the Present

The 2016 elections aren’t entirely over—when recently asked about anti-Semitism, Donald Trump responded with a word salad about his electoral college votes—but the fun of 2018 has already begun. The two Republicans likely to be atop Nevada’s ticket, Dean Heller and Adam Laxalt, are trying their best to help Democrats, who may not be wise enough to take full advantage of that gift.

Heller has long trumpeted his alleged bipartisanship—claiming that he’s not just another Republican who simply goes along with the party program. After all, out of the 16 Trump appointees who required Senate approval, he supported only 16 of them. He hammered one, Steven Mnuchin, during a confirmation hearing before the Finance Committee over profiting from foreclosures, winning praise even in this space—and then voted for Mnuchin both in committee and on the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, Laxalt, the Republican front-runner for governor in 2018 (that noise you heard is Gov. Brian Sandoval’s teeth grinding at the very idea), went to see Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett. As Laxalt said, he meets with a lot of people. But as The Nevada Independent reported, Laxalt said the Sands Corporation asked his office to file an amicus brief on “a statute that protects the confidentiality of documents submitted to the Gaming Control Board.” The situation involves a lawsuit against Adelson’s company. Burnett was concerned enough to record the conversation with Laxalt and send it to the FBI, which didn’t think the matter required further attention (Adelson himself reportedly spoke to Burnett about the case).

Whatever they do politically in the future, Heller and Laxalt need their base—both the rank-and-file who want Heller to stand by Trump, and big donors such as Adelson who expect Laxalt to be their friend. But if only Republicans vote for them, they don’t stand much of a chance.

Heller’s professions of bipartisanship and Nevada going Democratic in 2016 might be more harmful than helpful for his prospects. In 2012, he benefited from some Democrats backing him because he’s from the north and because he seemed capable of reason, especially when he had been a legislator and then as secretary of state (even a supposedly leftist professor voted for him for that gig). Will Democrats and moderate independents engage in that kind of regional chauvinism on his behalf in 2018? It seems decreasingly likely.

We need to be able to trust our elected officials to protect us, and that’s hard when they can’t be trusted—an increasingly familiar problem when Republicans try to govern.

If you doubt this, details his many bipartisan successes. Or, actually, his half of one. He lists 18 bills from the last congressional session, only one of which the Senate ever voted on, and the House didn’t pass it (although provisions of it wound up in another bill that became law). Democrats must have blocked them, right? No: They don’t appear to have even gotten out of the committees that Republicans controlled. Democrats can argue that he fails at bipartisanship and doesn’t do much better with partisanship when he belongs to the Senate majority.

By contrast, Laxalt seems to have little need to worry about the GOP base—he’s established his right-wing bona fides. But he certainly needs to worry about the whiff, or more, of scandal. Burnett’s reaction is telling. Why would he be so concerned about a conversation with the state attorney general? Why should he be? Is the FBI done with the case? Or is its attention still limited to Hillary Clinton’s emails?

Reasonable questions, it would seem. But if the Democratic candidate for governor is Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak or State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford—both of whom supported the stadium deal that Adelson wanted—having Laxalt as an opponent makes it harder to attack them without their pointing out that other state officials don’t trust Laxalt to even talk about Adelson, much less make decisions that might affect him, or them, or us.

This also raises questions about regulating Nevada’s golden goose. Lest we forget, the rest of the world once looked at Nevada as Mob Central. Laxalt’s grandfather, Paul Laxalt, played a significant role in changing the industry by pushing for statutory changes that enabled corporations to buy casinos and enabled Howard Hughes to obtain a gaming license without having to testify.

None of this may end up mattering in 2018. But we need to be able to trust our elected officials to protect us, and that’s hard when they can’t be trusted—an increasingly familiar problem when Republicans try to govern. And if Heller’s colleagues think so little of his bipartisan legislation and Laxalt’s colleagues are so nervous about talking with him, it should matter then—and now.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.