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VICTOR JOECKS: Heller enters gubernatorial race as vulnerable frontrunner

In theory, Dean Heller should be the runaway favorite for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. In reality, it’s going to be a very competitive race.

On Monday, Heller announced he’s running for governor at a Carson City event. His resume should make him a shoo-in. He spent much of the past three decades winning elections, including statewide races for secretary of state and U.S. Senate. His deep political roots should enable him to raise significant amounts of money, too. That’s usually a winning combination in a primary.

But Heller isn’t a juggernaut. In 2016, he said he was “100 percent against Clinton, 99 percent against Trump.” Not great in a state where then-candidate Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential caucus by more than 20 percentage points.

Trump did back Heller during his 2018 Senate run and helped prevent a primary challenge from Danny Tarkanian. But that always appeared to be a marriage of convenience.

“I just could never get my base excited on him,” Trump said after Heller lost in 2018.

That leaves a massive opening, but the remaining candidates each have what appear to be fatal flaws.

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is the strongest challenger. He’s won twice in heavily Democratic Clark County, albeit in a nonpartisan race. He has a reservoir of goodwill from his leadership after the Oct. 1 tragedy. He’s scored high-profile endorsements, including from former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison.

But he’s soft on guns — probably the worst issue on which a Republican candidate can be sideways with the base. He’s voiced support for bans on high-capacity magazines and said he would remain neutral on the 2016 background check initiative.

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee has a number of conservative accomplishments, including putting school choice in action with the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy. But he was a Democrat for decades. If he wants to be governor, he should run for the 4th Congressional District and try again after holding that seat.

Joey Gilbert is a fitter, less-famous version of Trump. He’s currently suing Gov. Steve Sisolak over the governor’s mask mandate for schools. He was part of a successful effort last year to lift restrictions on religious gatherings. Conventional wisdom is that he’s too extreme, but those who liked Trump’s brashness may find him appealing.

The true wildcard is businessman Guy Nohra. Normally, someone with zero name ID who moved here just a few years ago wouldn’t stand a chance. But public finance records suggest Nohra is worth several hundred million dollars. That can get you into the conversation, if he’s willing to spend.

Plus, he has an intriguing story. He was born in Lebanon. As a teen, he fought in his country’s civil war in defense of his Christian faith. His parents eventually sent him to America, where he achieved great success as a venture capitalist focused on biotech.

It’s easy to make the case why each of these candidates will lose. But absent another surprise candidate, one of them is going win.

It’s going to be a fascinating ride.

Contact Victor Joecks at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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