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In tight Nevada governor's race, Republican challenger Lombardo leans in to education

Joe Lombardo, the sheriff of Clark County, seeks to replicate a strategy employed by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin last year.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo
Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo at a primary-night party in Las Vegas on June 14. John Locher / AP file

Locked in a tight race for Nevada governor, Republican nominee Joe Lombardo is throwing the book at his Democratic opponent, Gov. Steve Sisolak, on the issue of education.

In recent weeks, Lombardo, who polls show is running neck and neck with Sisolak, has thrashed the incumbent on the issue, criticizing him on school safety, curriculum claims and pandemic-era school closures while pushing for “parents’ rights.”

It’s a page taken from the playbook of Glenn Youngkin, Virginia's Republican governor, who flipped a blue state red in a closely watched governor’s race by leaning in heavily to education and parents rights in the final weeks of the campaign. Lombardo's focus has thrust the GOP's attempts to make education policy a campaign strength further into the spotlight.

Youngkin, who like Lombardo was a first-time candidate, won the governor's race in a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points partly by stoking alarm over critical race theory, melding it with voters’ frustrations over pandemic school closings, and joining a push by conservatives to attack a wave of curriculum changes. The approach was part of a strategy to animate his base without alienating moderates. It won him enough support from women and suburban voters to steal victory from his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in the blue state.  

A year later, Lombardo, the sheriff of the state’s most populous county, is trying to do the same — and he’s brought Youngkin in to help him.

“I want to be considered the education governor,” Lombardo said Thursday at the first of two campaign events focused primarily on education. 

“He’s got the title of the education governor,” Lombardo said, nodding to Youngkin, who attended both events and spoke about his own approach on the issue during his campaign. “But I’m going to take it away from him,” Lombardo said.

While Lombardo, following his primary win, had largely previewed building his general election message around a trio of “kitchen table issues” — the economy, crime and education — he has increasingly emphasized the third issue in recent weeks, amping up attacks on Sisolak about the increase in public school violence in the state, a controversial decision to alter funding for a popular reading program, pandemic school closures, and what Lombardo claims is a pervasiveness of “social-reform curriculum” — a phrase he and his campaign said equates to “teaching kids what to think instead of how to think.”

The language closely resembles criticism of critical race theory, which Republican candidates like Youngkin claim teachers across the U.S. include in lesson plans despite limited evidence of that being the case.

Republicans across the U.S. have pushed critical race theory into the spotlight in recent years, at times misleadingly folding charged topics like racism and white privilege into a broader policy discussion about how much say parents should have over what’s taught in their kids’ classrooms. The strategy — which Youngkin showed can lead Republicans to victory by winning over independents — has given rise to a “parents rights” movement in many states, which Youngkin, and now Lombardo, have become aligned with.

“In Virginia, Gov. Youngkin has elevated parents’ voices. We need a governor like that in Nevada,” said Erin Phillips, the president of Power2Parent, one such national group, on the stage at a Lombardo campaign event Thursday. Phillips’ children attend Clark County public schools. 

Education could make the difference

The recent emphasis on education by Lombardo, who has so far used ads and campaign events to focus largely on the economy and crime, could make a meaningful difference in what polls show is a very close race.

“The key to this [approach] is that education is not monolithic," said Kristin Davison, a Republican strategist who helped craft Youngkin’s education messaging and strategy during his campaign. "Each voter is different. There are CRT voters, school choice voters, school safety voters, and when you bring all those concerns and parents together, like Youngkin did with his ‘parents matter’ movement, you make clear to these voters that no matter what your issue was, we are going to bring you together and make sure you have a seat at the table. And that’s something we really want to make sure that voters in Nevada get.”

Real Clear Politics’ latest polling average shows Lombardo leading Sisolak by 1.4 percentage points. Biden won Nevada two years ago by 2.4 percentage points — or a little less than 33,600 votes — and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the race a “toss-up.” Sisolak won his first term in 2018 against Adam Laxalt, now running for U.S. Senate, by about 4 percentage points. A Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights survey last month found that after the economy, education was the issue Nevada voters cared most about — a fact that Davison and others said means Lombardo’s shift in focus is the right move at the right time.

“Everyone’s talking about the economy, it’s key to Nevadans, but the second-most important issue is education," said Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights. "And just like Youngkin did in Virginia, it looks like Lombardo here in Nevada is going to be pulling the same card in trying to address the issues that have the most impact on Nevada voters."

“And for a general election in a governor’s race, it makes a lot of sense for a Republican to do that, which will help capture independents,” Noble added. About one in three Nevada voters are registered as nonpartisan.

The Sisolak campaign told NBC News that Lombardo’s recent emphasis on education was designed and timed to distract from what it said were a series of missteps and contradictory statements about his views on abortion policy — another key issue in midterm races across the U.S. — as well as from the fact that Lombardo’s previous criticism of Sisolak on rising crime in the state wasn’t resonating with voters because Lombardo himself is one of the state's top law enforcement officers.

“This is another failed attempt to shift the narrative away from Joe Lombardo’s extreme anti-abortion agenda and the rising crime on his watch,” Sisolak campaign spokesperson Reeves Oyster said in a statement to NBC News.

Safety, quality concerns

But school quality and safety are, in fact, big problems in Nevada.

Las Vegas-area schools were ranked second-worst in the U.S. in 2021 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Separately, reports to the police from within the Clark County School District of incidents of harassment, threats and sexual assault during the past school year rose 46% over levels from the 2018-2019 school year, according to a Washington Post analysis from May.

Lombardo has proposed eliminating a “restorative justice” law Democratic lawmakers enacted in 2019 that some educators in the state have said makes it difficult to expel or discipline violent students. 

He has also proposed breaking up the large Clark County district and restoring a statewide “Read by Three” program — which would institute a system of reading education to have every child reading by third grade —which he says Sisolak “scuttled.”

Sisolak’s campaign says funding for the program was cut in 2020 because of the pandemic but was restored in the 2022 budget. However, a previously existing requirement to hold children back if their reading skills weren't at grade level by third grade was cut. Sisolak’s campaign said the governor was responsible for awarding teachers their first raise in more than a decade and for investing $200 million to help repair learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.

The Sisolak campaign defended the governor’s decision to close schools during the pandemic. A spokesperson said it” protected lives and livelihoods” and that he “got kids back into the classroom as soon as it was safe,” while pointing out that Lombardo hasn’t disclosed any specific examples of the “social-reform curriculum” he says public school teachers are using in the state.

Youngkin raising national profile

Youngkin also has a lot to gain in touting his own Virginia strategy in Nevada. The first-term governor, who launched a political action committee earlier this year, has been mentioned as a future presidential candidate, and if his decision to export his own strategy to gubernatorial races in other swing states succeeds, it could magnify his name recognition and reputation among Republican voters. 

While the education-themed rallies on Thursday were Youngkin’s first alongside candidates this election cycle, he has already scheduled appearances with Republican gubernatorial candidates in Georgia, Kansas and New Mexico in the coming weeks. More events were likely to be added, Davison said, explaining that the landscape in Nevada was particularly fertile ground for testing Youngkin’s message.

“Joe [Lombardo] is uniquely on the same page as Youngkin,” she said. “He’s making education a big part of his platform.

“We know that Nevada voters really care about that, and that it’s going to make a difference,” she said.