LAS VEGAS (AP) — The fiercest primary election battle in Nevada this year is a race between two Democrats vying to become the swing state’s first Democratic governor in almost two decades.
The contentious primary has seen longtime Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak (SIHS’-oh-lahk) and Christina Giunchigliani (joon-kihl-ee-AHN’-ee) spar over their response to the October mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip while pledging to be champions for women and resist President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association.
The two are the leading contenders in a field of six. The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will likely face Republican Adam Laxalt, the state’s top prosecutor with a political pedigree, in November.
The broadsides between the candidates and their supporters led Giunchigliani to say in a campaign ad this week that she was sexually abused as a child. It was a pushback against an attack ad alleging that she “single-handedly protected perverts” by weakening a proposed state sex offender law more than a decade ago.
Giunchigliani, who says she’s tough on sexual assault and her changes allowed a broader sex offender law to pass, said in her ad: “Now Steve Sisolak says I’d let child molesters go free? It’s untrue and it’s offensive.”
Nevada is a swing state that’s trending blue. Democrats hope the winner of Tuesday’s primary will ride a “blue wave” fueled by opposition to Trump right into the governor’s mansion.
Sisolak, chairman of the powerful Clark County Commission that oversees the Las Vegas Strip and surrounding communities, has struck more moderate positions in the past. He contends that he’s the best candidate to take on Laxalt.
Laxalt, a 39-year-old former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, supported Trump in 2016 and is backed in his bid for governor by billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the wealthy Koch brothers. The attorney general is the grandson of former U.S. Sen. and Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt.
Giunchigliani and Sisolak’s efforts to stake themselves out as tried-and-true progressives isn’t going to do too much damage to the eventual Democratic nominee, according to John Tuman, chair of the political science department at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“This is a unique election year in that it offers opportunities for Democrats in particular to try to make statewide races partly as sort of a referendum on the Trump administration,” he said.
The 64-year-old Sisolak’s recent campaign finance reports show he’s closer to matching Laxalt’s war chest, which tops $4 million. Sisolak has outraised Giunchigliani but also spent five times as much as she has, spending an average of about $1 million a month this year.
As chair of the Clark County Commission, Sisolak became a prominent figure following the October shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, where a gunman perched in the Mandalay Bay casino-hotel killed 58 people and injured hundreds more at a country music festival.
Hours after the shooting, Sisolak started a fundraiser for victims that went on to raise more than $30 million and was a regular on stage at press conferences.
Last month, the candidates sparred in a debate over his role and the fundraiser that started hours after the attack. Giunchigliani said she wasn’t called by the sheriff that night and only found out about the shooting the morning after from a voicemail from a staff member.
“Everybody was called. I answered the phone,” Sisolak said.
Sisolak received coveted endorsements from Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus and former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who declared in a campaign ad that Sisolak “will not allow anyone, including Donald Trump, to push him around.”
Giunchigliani, a 63-year-old former state legislator and teacher, has declared herself the true progressive in the race and an advocate for women’s issues while casting Sisolak as too moderate. She’s earned the backing of progressive groups like EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women, and has touted her efforts in the Assembly to require insurance coverage for birth control.
Sisolak, like Giunchigliani, says he’d steer state money toward Planned Parenthood. In a television ad with his adult daughters, Sisolak says he relied on Planned Parenthood as a single father to get them health screenings and information.
The ad resonated with 48-year-old Dianna Lewis of Las Vegas.
“I have three daughters, and I know his daughters are in his campaign,” Lewis said. “I see them on TV all the time and they support their dad. I think they’re a big force behind him.”
Sisolak, who once received an “A-” rating from the NRA, seemed to be more moderate on gun issues, which Lewis said she found appealing.
“The gun issue — we’re not going to stop it. It doesn’t start with guns. I mean, maybe it does, but it’s a people issue. It really is. Like pencils don’t write bad things — people write bad things,” Lewis said.
Her neighbor, 78-year-old Mary Holguin, wasn’t as impressed with Sisolak.
“He might have raised his daughters fine, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the ballot, what he’s in for,” Holguin said in the doorway of her Las Vegas home shortly after Giunchigliani came by Tuesday evening to ask for her vote.
Holguin gave her a hug and said “I’m Democratic all the way!”