LAS VEGAS — In a wide-ranging and mostly civil debate in Las Vegas, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and Republican challenger Joe Lombardo, the sheriff of Clark County, duked it out over education, taxes, inflation and abortion.
Notably, they agreed on only one issue: that the 2020 election was not stolen.
Asked by moderator Jon Ralston whether he agreed with former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the last presidential election in Nevada was “rigged,” Lombardo said, “No, I do not.
“There was modicum of fraud, but nothing to change the election,” he said.
Asked whether he thought Trump was a “great president,” Lombardo said, “I wouldn’t use that adjective.
“He was a sound president,” he said, with policies that were “beneficial” to the country that helped “move it forwards versus backwards.”
But about Trump’s claims of 2020 election fraud, Lombardo said, “It bothers me.
“I’m not shying away from that,” Lombardo said. "I don’t stand by him in that aspect.”
Asked whether Trump, with such claims, “undermined confidence” in the system, Lombardo replied, “Yes, he did.
“You’re never going to agree with anybody 100% and everything they do. Even in my own party, there’s people that don’t agree with 100% of what I present forward, but you know, you gotta look at the totality of the person and their leadership,” Lombardo added, in reference to Trump.
Lombardo, whom Trump endorsed, has said that he didn’t think there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election in Nevada and that Joe Biden was legitimately elected president.
But his latest comments marked a shift further away from Trump, putting more political distance between them less than a week before he is set to campaign with the former president and Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt at a large rally in Reno.
Elizabeth Ray, a spokesperson for the Lombardo campaign, said Lombardo had been “very consistent on where he has stood with election integrity and election fraud.”
Meanwhile, Sisolak, in a brief interview with reporters after the debate, criticized Lombardo for suggesting there was even a “modicum” of fraud in Nevada elections.
“There’s no fraud,” Sisolak said.
Sunday's 90-minute showdown, organized by the Nevada Independent news organization at a studio in Las Vegas, was expected to be the candidates’ only faceoff before Election Day. Lombardo and Sisolak, considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic governors in the U.S., haven’t agreed on any additional debates or town halls, although several have been proposed.
The pair are locked in a tight race in the closely watched battleground state.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the race a “toss-up,” and RealClearPolitics’ latest polling average shows Lombardo leading Sisolak by 1.6 percentage points in the state, which Biden won in 2020 by 2.4 percentage points — or a little less than 33,600 votes. Sisolak won his first term in 2018 against Laxalt, who is now running for the Senate, by about 4 percentage points.
Sisolak was asked whether he thought Biden — whose approval rating in Nevada has slumped below 40% — is a “great president.”
He called Biden a “very good president” who “inherited a lot of problems from Donald Trump that he’s working through.”
“A lot of what he’s being accused of — this inflation situation — [is] not necessarily his fault,” Sisolak said. “He doesn’t control the price of gasoline, no more than I control the price of a chicken and ground beef at the stores. So I think that the president has done well with what he’s been presented with.”
Sisolak and Lombardo also sparred over education and abortion — an issue on which Sisolak has accused Lombardo of frequently changing his positions.
Asked to clarify his position on abortion, Lombardo maintained that, even though his “personal belief is pro-life,” abortion is legal under Nevada law until the 24th week of pregnancy.
“It’s codified in law,” he said. “There’s nothing that the governor can do to change it.
“I have no intention of re-addressing the issue,” he said.
In May, Lombardo said he would support a voter referendum that would propose changing the law to ban abortion after the 13th week of pregnancy — a position he has since disavowed.
He has also said at various points that he would support parental notification measures and waiting periods for abortions. He said this year that he would, as governor, consider repealing an executive order implemented by Sisolak that created protections for women from out of state seeking abortion care in Nevada — but last week he said he would commit to not repealing the order if he is elected.
Asked about his changing support for the 13-week ban, Lombardo said he had “thought about it more and evaluated.”
Asked whether, if he is elected, he would propose or support any measure that would “weaken” the right to abortion, Lombardo said, “I would support the vote of the people.”
But after Ralston pointed out that the governor still has power to “erode” abortion protections, Lombardo asked the moderator to go through a list of specific measures — including waiting periods and mandatory ultrasound scans — and responded with a different answer to each one.
“I’m supportive of whatever’s the benefit to a woman and her baby,” Lombardo said during the exchange.
In a brief interview, Ray, the Lombardo campaign spokesperson, said Lombardo's position was that specifics about abortion access were issues that “need to be decided by Nevadans and Nevadans alone." She said Lombardo would "be supportive of anyone bringing forward a ballot measure" about abortion restrictions, because Lombardo supports "the vote of the people."