Joe Lombardo remains the heavy favorite in a 20-person field of GOP contenders for Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s seat — especially after securing a crucial endorsement from former President Donald Trump.
The Clark County sheriff has led every poll in the race since late September, including a recent Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal survey that placed him 2 percentage points ahead of Sisolak in a hypothetical Election Day matchup.
Lombardo is also by far the best-funded candidate in the contest, with nearly $3 million in cash on hand. That’s more than twice the bankroll of any other Republican in the race.
In other words, the elected head of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department can just about afford to ignore most of his opponents. Lombardo has faced withering criticism over his absences at live debates and forums. His election foes have even taken to replacing him with a lifesize cardboard cutout propped up in an empty chair.
But the lawman has pushed back against those who accuse him of ghosting voters.
“It’s unfortunate people think I’ve been avoiding the press throughout this process, and that is not the case,” he told reporters and a few dozen supporters after officially filing for office in Carson City. “I’ve never shied away from public discourse and confronting the problems that have been presented, and I think it’s important for people to understand that.”
In a statement, campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Ray touted Lombardo’s fundraising lead and called him “one of the most accessible elected officials in Nevada.” She noted the candidate’s attendance at a March forum held by the Keystone Corporation, and said he planned to attend similar events in the future.
“Voters know that Joe has leadership and experience they can trust,” Ray added, “and that’s evident in our fundraising number.”
Who is Joe Lombardo?
Lombardo, 59, grew up in a military household. The son of Air Force veteran, he was born in Japan and moved to Las Vegas in 1976. He graduated from Rancho High School.
He started with Metro as an officer in 1988. Lombardo was promoted through the ranks for 26 years, becoming an assistant sheriff in 2011 before he retired as a commissioned officer. He was elected in 2014 as sheriff and re-elected in 2018.
As head of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Lombardo oversees some 5,000 police officers, by far the state’s largest police force.
Las Vegas’ top cop first rose to statewide political prominence after playing a central role in responding to the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting that left 60 dead near Mandalay Bay.
Lombardo’s policy views
His first partisan campaign bid for the governor’s mansion is largely built from the same stuff as his opponents.
Lombardo opposes abortion except in cases that involve incest, sexual assault or the health of the mother. He has also expressed support a proposed ballot initiative that would require the parents of minors to be notified before their child gets an abortion.
A lifelong Republican who says he voted for Trump in the past two presidential contests, he promises to veto proposed tax increases and endorses “school choice” alternatives to traditional public schools.
He’s pushed back against criticism of Metro’s decision to withdraw from a program coordinating with federal immigration officers and said he has “zero tolerance” for immigrants who break the law.
But unlike other Republican governor hopefuls, Lombardo supports mandatory training for those carrying a concealed firearm, as well as limited background checks on gun sales.
“I’ve seen it from a different perspective than most people,” the U.S. Army veteran said in an interview with the RGJ. “I’ve been dealing with s— for 33 years, and I know the ills of a bad person having a gun.”
Lombardo’s also less skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines than some primary election candidates, even if he broadly agrees with Republican opposition to virus-related mandates.
He is against teaching critical race theory in public schools, but said he didn’t know if it was currently being taught to Silver State students.
Critical race theory, whose origins began in the 1970s, posits the legal system serves the interests of the powerful and wealthy, giving white people an institutional advantage in the United States.
His view on election integrity
In July, Lombardo told the RGJ he didn’t know if the results of November’s election were accurate.
He hasn’t changed his mind since then, though he said President Joe Biden is the duly elected president and that the election was not stolen.
There remains no credible evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, despite former President Donald J. Trump’s claims to the contrary.
Lombardo pointed to enhanced voter ID requirements as one way to bolster flagging faith in the electoral process, which polling shows is largely a phenomenon among GOP voters.
He also endorsed the creation of a bipartisan “election integrity commission” that would be able to review and audit county vote totals.
A wide cast of opponents
Lombardo is running for governor in a crowded Republican primary field that features ex-U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee and firebrand GOP activist Joey Gilbert, a fervent Trump supporter who has questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Heller has had a particularly fraught relationship with Lombardo, who stocked his governor campaign with former Heller staffers.
It all started after Lombardo slammed the former senator as a “spineless bureaucrat” and “washed up baseball player,” according to The Nevada Independent. He later told the RGJ that Heller drew first blood in the spat, and that he didn’t expect it to go on much longer.
Lombardo almost immediately added that he doesn’t believe Heller has “the bandwidth” needed to run the state, rekindling a tit-for-tat that’s likely to continue through the June 14 primary.
Clark County’s two-term sheriff kicked off his governor campaign with a July 2021 media blitz in Reno — the same place where Lombardo initially confirmed his candidacy two months earlier.
Lombardo said at the time that he’d have to be “well-known in the North” to have any chance of beating Sisolak, who worked closely with the Southern Nevada sheriff to raise funds for victims of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.
Sisolak, then the chair of the Clark County Board of Commissioners, went on to make Lombardo the lone Republican appointee to his post-election transition team.
These days, Lombardo describes his relationship with Sisolak as “nonexistent.”
“I believe I can do a better job,” Lombardo said. “People say, ‘Well, you’re just a police officer in charge of a police agency.’ But I have a large budget, $1.3 billion, and I deal with all the nuances of running a big business.
“So that transition (to the governor’s office) would be a lot easier for me than it was for him.”
Sisolak was elected in 2018 by 4 percentage points, making him the first Democrat to win the governor’s mansion in two decades.
What do likely voters think of Lombardo?
A mid-April Suffolk University/RGJ poll found 39% of likely midterm election voters would pick Lombardo in an Election Day matchup against Sisolak, who was favored by 37% of respondents.
He fared worse in a subsequent survey conducted by the Nevada Independent/OH Predictive insights. That survey showed Sisolak leading his likely general election opponent 44% to 35% among registered voters in Nevada.
Most campaign experts consider the races at the top of the Silver State’s general election ballot to be a toss-up.
Republicans are set to name the governor’s general election challenger during a primary election scheduled for June 14.
James DeHaven is the politics reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. He covers campaigns, the Nevada Legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.