Angry Hutchison and calm Lowden obscure substance -- or lack thereof -- in LG's debate


During a contentious “Ralston Reports” debate Monday, lieutenant governor candidates Sue Lowden and Mark Hutchison did something I have never before encountered: They pleaded with me on air to ask the questions they wanted to answer.

“I’m ready for another question that deals with my issues,” Hutchison, the state senator, insisted, dodging a question about ex-state senator Lowden’s infamous 2010 bartering comments. “Let’s talk about being lieutenant governor,” Lowden quickly agreed.

Being lieutenant governor? As if that’s what this race is about, a contest for a position that has never had much authority and now has virtually no real duties beyond the ministerial presiding over the state Senate and chairing a meaningless state commission.

This is not about being lieutenant governor or even the 2014 election; this is all about 2016 and beyond and whether Gov. Brian Sandoval leaves office to allow the lieutenant governor to ascend. And for those who tuned in to “Ralston Reports” Monday evening, they saw two candidates not ready for the prime job who were only too happy to talk about their opposition to Obamacare and the other’s taxing record, not a forensic analysis of Robert’s Rules of Order or a great idea for a tourism grant.

Being lieutenant governor? Monday was about being the best panderer to the GOP primary electorate, which resulted in a competition for best revisionist historian and who could get furthest to the right. I think Lowden won both contests.

Make no mistake: If you were introduced to the candidates through Monday’s televised debate, you saw a nearly apoplectic Hutchison barely – I mean, barely – contain himself as the debate wore on. He began with his back turned to Lowden, never fully turned to face her even as he parried her jabs and his own visage soon became crimson with anger, with the Review-Journal picture below perfectly capturing his mood. His own team’s attempt to take to social media afterward and have sycophants declare him the obvious winner was sadly transparent.

Meanwhile, Lowden, the former TV anchorwoman, began the debate smiling, seemed to enjoy needling Hutchison (and the host!) and generally was having a good ole time. As one admiring Democrat who watched bluntly put it, “She is really f---ing good on camera too.” Yes she is.

The contrast was striking. And it indicated to me just how incensed Hutchison is by Lowden’s attacks, almost as if he wants to turn to her and say: “Listen, Sue. I’m the guy the governor told to run. Everyone in the GOP elite wants me. What the hell are you doing in this race?”

Lowden seemed preternaturally calm, enjoying the to and fro, using visual aids to emphasize her point, whether it was holding up a mining tax proposal Hutchison backed or a list of putative tax increases she asserted he supported, knowing exactly where the camera was.

But beyond appearances, what struck me the most is how Lowden twisted herself into contradictory and evasive answers while Hutchison desperately tried to avoid talking about his advocacy for a huge mining tax increase, as if it never existed. There was a lot in the debate that you could miss if you were just looking at Angry Hutch and Smiling Sue. It’s worth a thorough examination because of what it reveals about both candidates and what it portends for this race that has little to do with being lieutenant governor and a lot to do with the possibility of a Brian Sandoval-Harry Reid race (unlikely though it may be) in 2016:

Mining tax? What mining tax? During the Legislature, Hutchison and five other Republican senators, led by Minority Leader Michael Roberson, proposed (note that word) what they called the “Education Priority Initiative.” It was designed as a 10 percent net proceeds tax on mining to go on the ballot as a poison pill to kill the teachers’ margin tax, a k a The Education Initiative.

Lowden has been pounding Hutchison on the tax plan in rural Nevada, and he has struggled to explain it.

On Monday, Hutchison tried to parse, saying he didn’t “propose” it. But he did, along with five other Republicans.

Then he tried to filibuster about the margin tax and how it was worse than the Black Plague or something. But didn’t he want mining taxes raised?

As an alternative to what would be the fourth highest corporate income tax in the country and 9 out of 10 businesses would have a lower income tax in California than Nevada.  And this is going to blow up our economy.  Did I look at an alternative, that the Legislature could look at by law, in order to take a look at diffusing a nuclear bomb?  Yes.  Didn’t go anywhere, didn’t come up a committee hearing, it didn’t come up for a vote.  I haven’t said anything about it since.  Was it something to look at though, at the time?  Absolutely.”

That is something else. “I haven’t said anything about it since.” Hilarious, senator. And so what if it never came up for a vote? Thus, it never really existed and you didn’t help, ahem, propose it?

That bell still rings, can’t be unrung.

Indeed, Lowden held up the bill with Hutchison’s name on it. But when I asked her to tell Southern Nevadans why she wanted to protect the mining industry so badly, she pivoted to her list of Hutchison’s putative tax votes.

And that’s where this really got interesting.

 I’m against all of them no matter what they say. Well, maybe not. Lowden has a list of several dozen bills that she criticizes Hutchison for supporting, some of which include fees and not taxes. And some of them the state senator defended, including “increasing the fines on DUIs; increasing the fines when people are engaged in Medicaid fraud and welfare fraud; increasing the fines when those who own medical laboratories and violate state law.”

Many passed easily with bipartisan support because of what the cause or need was. So I asked Lowden:

JR:         And you would have voted against all those.  Let me ask you…


SL:         Well, they all had a fiscal note. 


JR:         But you would have voted against all those...


SL:         They all had a fiscal note.


JR:         That’s what I’m asking you.


SL:         Yes.  Yes.  I would have.


This is just bad staff work or Lowden really believes she would have voted against all of these measures. Naturally, Hutchison pointed out Lowden voted for tax increases, including proposing a controversial add-on for non-combat veterans to be buried in a veterans cemetery. She said Monday – and conceded on an earlier program those votes were “a mistake,” although she tried to deny the veterans tax on Monday, strangely enough.

I asked Lowden again if she would have “voted against every single bill on that list.”Her reply: “I’m saying that I would have voted against all these tax increases…or fee increases.”

And then she flipped on one of them on her list, within seconds.

I asked about the measure that erected the state's web poker infrastructure. It passed unanimously and was hailed as some kind of watershed, historical moment by Sandoval. It has many fees.


Lowden: “Under the circumstances of what’s happening now with the controversy of whether or not we should go forward with Internet gaming or not, I would have taken pause. I think that we maybe need to – need to take a deep breath.”

Is there a “Pause” button next to the red and green buttons in the Legislature? More:


JR:         Is that a no?


SL:         I said we need to take a deep breath on that.


JR:         What does that mean, though?


SL:         It means that I’m not sure how I would have voted back then because of all that’s coming out now in the – in recent light.

My goodness.

Obamacare: Who hates it more? Hutchison put on his aggrieved mien when talking about how Lowden has attacked him for voting in Carson City for three bills that enabled Obamacare after he unsuccessfully sued the feds on behalf of the state to block its implementation. He was insulted. Very.

And then this line, which seemed canned: My opponent calls herself a Brian Sandoval Republican.  Everything that she says and does in this campaign has been to criticize Brian Sandoval including on these kind of votes.”

You see, Hutchison wants everyone to know, Sue Lowden hates Brian Sandoval! The most popular governor ever.

With the state exchange a bit of a disaster and Medicaid costs rising, Lowden has an advantage here, at least in a GOP primary. And she pounced:

You can be insulted all you want Mark, I'm the one who went against Harry Reid to fight Obamacare.  So when you say…

Hutchison, already irritated, interrupted to assert she “never went against Harry Reid,” having lost to Sharron Angle in the Republican primary. Ouch.

But Lowden was undeterred, pointing out how Hutchison had promised during his state Senate campaign to continue to fight in Carson City against Obamacare. And she said other states had dealt with Medicaid expansion, which Hutchison voted for: “They've appealed to the federal government to get their fair share of their money that they deserve to have in their state because they're paying it out.  They've appealed to the federal government.  We should join that appeal to say we want our federal money to help our Medicaid patients but not go along – absolutely not go along.  And in these other states, they are reducing the amount of people.  We have the largest – the largest increase of Medicaid.”

And the GOP primary voters send their hosannas….

Whose freedom is it anyhow? I asked both candidates about the controversial Arizona "religious freedom" bill, especially because Hutchison has sponsored an unsuccessful Preservation of Religious Freedom Act here. They are not identical, but both profess to remove the burden of government from businesses that want to exercise so-called religious freedom. Both candidates professed not to know a lot about the Arizona measure, but Hutchison staunchly defended his bill, which was opposed by the ACLU and died in the Assembly.

What our law said was, is that before government could intrude upon our religious freedoms and our exercise of our conscience, they’ve got to show a compelling state interest.  Not just a good idea or a reasonable state interest; a compelling state interest.  The 1st Amendment and our rights to freely exercise our religion are at the very foundation of our Bill of Rights and it is so important, that I thought that we should continue that fight and sponsor that bill.

By contrast, Lowden seemed to have no idea what was in the bill: Well, if you talk to someone like Barbara Cegavske, who was the sponsor of the bill, she felt that our religious freedoms were in jeopardy, and she feels that it was a necessary bill.

When I asked which religious freedoms were in jeopardy, she looked at me blankly at first: “You want to hear that from me?”

She then mentioned prayer in school and removing “God” from the pledge, which have nothing to do with her friend Cegavske’s (and Hutchison's) measure to ensure businesses are not burdened by government.

Can you say “general election issue” for both of them?

By the way, Hutchison also said Sandoval supported his bill. No comment from governor’s office so far, I see nothing contemporaneous and crickets, too, from Team Hutchison when I asked where that claim came from.

Debt? What debt? Hutchison said the issue of Lowden’s massive debt after her failed 2010 U.S. Senate bid is "troubling" and a matter of personal responsibility." Lowden tried to change the subject to Hutchison having to amend his state report to document a trip to Israel, but then she dissembled about her problem.

First she said, “The last report I filed there was zero and that’s what it is right now.” Actually, the last report showed she owes more than $600,000, along with a debt settlement plan that has long-term payoffs.

Second, she said the “rules are they (FEC) have to accept it.” Not so. The FEC, as it has done before with Lowden, could reject her termination report.

Third, she said, “I’ve paid almost $3 million worth of debt in that Harry Reid race.” Now that is chutzpah because $2 million of that was her own money!

Finally, this: “And the voters can make a decision and there’s nobody complaining but you Mark. “ Really?

Four strikes and…

Sandoval is conservative enough. Or is he? I asked both candidates, each eager to wear the conservative mantle, whether the governor was a member of the club. Hutchison essentially said Sandoval proved he was a conservative by….appointing Hutchison to sue the federal government on Obamacare. Oh? When I asked what legislation Sandoval had proposed to prove his bona fides, Hutchison mentioned instead a veto of the background check bill.

Given her chance, Lowden’s answer was beautifully wry: “I think that Brian Sandoval could use me as lieutenant governor so that I that could be a little more conservative and help him along in that – in that way.”

Well done.

Lowden, who will need to juice her campaign with more money to compete with Hutchison, is counting on using her perceived underdog status and challenge to the elite as a plus in running in what will be a low-turnout primary, dancing around her criticism of Sandoval at times but clearly headed for a showdown with him. But it's also true that Hutchison is counting on the governor and his popularity to blunt any "I'm the real conservative" campaign by Lowden, who, ironically, lost to Angle partly because she was not seen as conservative enough. Team Hutchoval, the melding of the two organizations, is much more robust, with a rapid response team sending out "fact checks" during the debate and Hutchison backer and colleague Michael Roberson tweeting after the debate: "RT (Retweet) if you stand with Brian Sandoval. Tonight it was clear Sue Lowden doesn't."

The intensity of last night’s debate and a nearly volcanic Hutchison’s inability to contain his anger toward an amazingly calm Lowden will be what most observers take away from the debate. I even suggested on Twitter that the real winner was incipient Democratic contender Lucy Flores because this presages a nasty, drawn-out Republican primary fight. But there was much more there than met the eye, and surely left some asking the seminal question that has nothing to do with being lieutenant governor:

How comfortable do you feel with either of these candidates taking over if Sandoval leaves?


(Photo from the RJ.)