Danny Tarkanian keeps running — even though he keeps losing. Why? On the occasion of his fifth time on the ballot, notes on a perennial candidate saddled with a dynasty to live up to
For the seventh or so time in the first hour that I watch Danny Tarkanian campaign at the Fourth of July parade in Boulder City, he is forced to answer The Question.
“Hey Danny,” says gruff-voiced George Cox. The 82-year-old’s “Make Boulder City Great Again” cap falls askew as he practically leaps out of his lawn chair to clasp Tarkanian’s hand. “You gonna finally win this time?”
Nobody wants to know the answer more than the candidate himself. This is Tarkanian’s fifth general-election run in 14 years, and the third time this decade running as the Republican nominee for a seat in the U.S. House. Including his particularly brutal 2010 loss in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, he talks about his would-be political career as having an 0-5 record — one never endured by his father, the late, legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, whose fame gave his son a political head start; or his mother, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, who has lost just one election in nearly 30 years of running.
Danny Tarkanian has several versions of an answer to The Question. He has a long one and a short one, a peppy one and a wonky one. In Cox’s case, perhaps because he’s racing to get to his place in the parade, Tarkanian is brief: “I feel like we got a good shot, but I need your help. Can I count on your help?”
Cox nods as Tarkanian loosens his grip and moves up the sidewalk. “Of course, I’ll vote for him,” Cox tells me moments later. “He’s a good man, and I only vote Republican. I would never vote for that, uh, Susie Whatsit?” He means Tarkanian’s Democratic opponent, Susie Lee, herself on her second run for Congress.
Nevada politics is replete with longshot perennial candidates who become more obscure and irrelevant the more races they lose, but Tarkanian is unique in that he’s suffered so many high-profile losses while, intriguingly, coming closer and closer to a victory.
His most recent defeat, in 2016 to Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen in the same suburban and rural Clark County district he’s vying for this fall, was by all accounts the most agonizing. Rosen, who’s vacating the seat for a Senate run against Republican Dean Heller, won by just 1.3 points, or fewer than 4,000 votes out of almost 311,000 cast.
“I was so close in that last election,” Tarkanian tells me a few days later at his Las Vegas home. “How do you try so hard and get so close and then say, ‘Look, I’m going to walk away from it’?” If you’re the would-be scion of a much-mythologized Las Vegas family name, you can’t.
The comeback kid
To understand how Tarkanian can keep coming back for more after such humiliating beatings, it’s instructive to rewind to a different November contest nearly 40 years ago, one that taught him the glory awaiting those who never give up. As some 7,000 people jammed into the Silver Bowl that Friday night in 1979 to watch the Bishop Gorman Gaels take on the Reno High School Huskies in the high school football championship, the Tarkanian they were eager to see triumph, for once, was not the famed UNLV basketball coach, but his 17-year-old quarterback son.
The Huskies had a 19-0 lead before Tarkanian threw three touchdown passes to end the first half ahead, 21-19. When the second half started, the Huskies amped up the ferocity — “They hit me harder than anybody ever has,” Danny told the Reno Gazette-Journal later — and forced him out of the game in the third quarter with a groin injury. With three minutes left in the game, after the Huskies hit a field goal to move ahead 28-27, a limping Tarkanian insisted on returning to the field. Vegas fans were riveted as they watched Tarkanian methodically move the ball from the 10-yard line straight up the field. He completed four of five passes — “Each one of them is caught with feet off the ground,” recalls journalist Ray Hagar, then a reporter covering high school sports for the Reno Evening Gazette — to move his team 83 yards against the Huskies. That assured Huskies victory then vanished into the arc of a Gael field goal with 13 seconds on the clock that also minted a Tarkanian legend. The legend grew through countless media reports about him in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his athletic prowess drew coverage from the likes of the L.A. Times and Sports Illustrated. He confirmed that persistence and grit when he later played basketball at UNLV for three years under his father.
Recognizing that an NBA career was unlikely, Tarkanian went to law school at the University of San Diego, where he finished third in his class. But a career as an attorney, he says, was merely intended as a stepping stone to his true interest: elected office.
“I always wanted to get into politics from a very young age,” he says. “The problem was, when I got out of law school, I didn’t want to talk in front of anybody, so I didn’t want to run for office anymore. I was too scared.”
The myth-making high school quarterback, star college basketball player, and ace law student, terrified of public speaking? This is how his first court appearance went: “I had to go in and say, ‘My name is Danny Tarkanian, and I’m appearing on behalf of the debtor.’ I’m sweating. I said it as fast as I could and sat down. And it was the most terrifying thing I had done at that point in my life. And that was just that one line. Because of that, I did transactional work instead of doing courtroom work.”
His legal career lasted just eight years. But he did use his credentials and his family ties to vociferously defend his father as the NCAA investigated Jerry Tarkanian for recruiting violations at UNLV and then, in 1992, when the university pushed him out. “If anybody still thinks there isn’t a vendetta against my father after this thing, then they are just not thinking straight,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal in July 1990 after the NCAA sanctioned the Runnin’ Rebels — fresh off its NCAA national championship — for a year’s probation.
The 1990s also saw Lois Tarkanian’s political rise in Las Vegas. Her three elections to the Clark County School Board were breezy; the Tarkanian name certainly helped but, also, her career as a speech pathologist compelled her to call out the school district on how it treated children with disabilities. Her populist rhetoric made her popular with voters, but made her 12-year tenure on the board nearly as tumultuous as her husband’s coaching career.
But here’s the part that helps explain why Danny Tarkanian doesn’t give up: Both of his parents were vindicated. In 1998, after one of many court battles with the NCAA, Jerry Tarkanian received $2.5 million in a settlement that concluded a lawsuit the coach filed against the league alleging a two-decade harassment campaign against him. By the time he died in 2015, he had been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, his name graced the basketball court at the Thomas & Mack Center, and he got a street and a statue on the UNLV campus.
Likewise, by the time Lois Tarkanian completed her third term on the school board in 2000, most of her CCSD detractors had departed or lost their sway. The first board vote after she left, she relishes in telling me, was to name an elementary school in her honor. And, after a narrow loss in a 2000 race for Clark County Commission, she unseated Las Vegas City Councilwoman Janet Moncrief in a 2005 special recall election, and won full terms in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
“Because of all that, we, all of us kids, have got a little bit of a thicker skin,” says Tarkanian’s sister, Jodie Tarkanian Diamant. “We all realize what’s true and what’s factual, and you can’t change people’s minds if they want to believe something negative about you.”
In Danny Tarkanian’s mind, his setbacks and defeats aren’t an exception to the family lore — they’re signs he’s ultimately destined for triumph, too.
“My family taught me not to quit, to keep fighting if I believe in myself,” he says. “We don’t give up.”
Trump is their coach now
All of that helps explain why, when President Donald Trump tweeted at him on March 16, it set up what Tarkanian says was “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life.” Trump wrote: “It would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada, and it’s (sic) unity if good guy Danny Tarkanian would run for Congress and Dean Heller, who is doing a really good job, could run for Senate unopposed!”
Tarkanian had jumped into the Republican primary in the summer of 2017 seeking to exact political revenge on Heller. Heller’s crime? Disloyalty. Heller had disavowed Trump in the waning days of the 2016 campaign, after Trump’s infamous “grab them by the p---y” audio surfaced from a 2005 Access Hollywood taping. Then, in June, Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval announced their opposition to a Trump-led effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act percolating in the U.S. Senate. It offended Tarkanian, the athlete and team player. Trump is their coach now. How dare anyone question the play?
With the backing of like-minded Nevada conservatives, Tarkanian appeared on Fox & Friends in August 2017 to announce his candidacy for the primary. But national party insiders thought Heller had a better chance than an orthodox Trumpist to hold his seat in an increasingly left-leaning state. It was conveyed to Tarkanian that the president wanted him to step aside and make another run, perhaps, for Congress.
After some soul-searching, he ultimately followed orders. Tarkanian could see Trump’s logic. “This is what he’s looking at: Heller’s never lost a race, Tarkanian’s never won a race. Why would Tarkanian win? He can’t win. But what they didn’t look at is — Heller’s run in safe seats; when he had a tough race, he won by 1 percent. If I had a chance to talk with the president, because he’s a sports guy, I would try to explain that I was playing Duke in North Carolina on the road with their officials; Dean was playing Cal State Fullerton at Irvine at home. There’s a big difference with the races you’re in.”
What made the decision tougher was that entering the 3rd congressional district race meant challenging a longtime friend, Victoria Seaman, who had filed to run at Tarkanian’s encouragement. “I was very upset, I’m not going to lie. But I came to realize Danny didn’t have a lot of choice,” she says. “He was asked by the president of the United States. He had a lot of money from his Senate campaign, so I (dropped out and) decided to help him get elected. I have jumped on and have been helping Danny ever since.”
In June, Danny Tarkanian had something he hadn’t enjoyed since the very first of his political runs: An easy Republican primary victory and the full-throated backing of “the establishment.” The National Republican Congressional Committee, for instance, anointed him one of its 23 “Young Guns” — candidates to receive the highest level of financial and organizational support from the GOP.
And he got what has become the most important gift in Republican politics, a presidential endorsement via Twitter: “Congratulations to Danny Tarkanian on his big GOP primary win in Nevada. Danny worked hard and got a great result. Looking good in November!”
‘Why does he do this to himself?’
“I’ve said it myself many times, ‘Why? Why does he do this to himself?’” Lois says. “Because I know how hurt he feels. I can feel it with him. And he said, ‘Mom, I’ve never given up on anything. You know that.’ He says, ‘Is it embarrassing? Yes. When I call people and I ask them to donate, people will donate two, three times. I feel so embarrassed doing that. But I believe in it. I’m going to keep trying.’”
There’s another reason why he keeps going. Because, like his parents before him, he has enjoyed vindication in a way few politicians ever do.
After a coaching stint in Fresno with his father, Tarkanian returned to Las Vegas with his wife and their first child, ready to pursue his political dreams by running for a Nevada Senate seat in 2004. He lost by seven points to incumbent Democratic Sen. Mike Schneider, a result Tarkanian blamed on an attack ad that accused him of setting up telemarketing companies later found to be running scams.
Tarkanian sued Schneider for defamation — and won. Five years after the race, a Clark County jury ruled in his favor. Within days, Schneider agreed to pay $150,000 in damages to settle the matter.
“Do you realize what it was for him to win?” Lois says. “He was the first person ever in the state of Nevada that has ever won that type of lawsuit. Because there was always no proof, no anything. … Has he ever been arrested? Any of the things that they’re telling you about, has he ever even been interrogated? No! Nothing! They print this stuff, and it goes and it goes and it goes.”
Such a victory put an asterisk beside that first loss. And the Tarkanians offer lots of asterisks to explain other losses, too. In his 2006 race for Nevada secretary of state, his wife Amy Tarkanian says, eventual winner Ross Miller rode the coattails of his own famous parents and benefited from the endorsement of America’s Most Wanted’s John Walsh. In 2010, Tarkanian split the vote with Sue Lowden, and both were sunk by a surge of spending by the out-of-state Tea Party Express that helped catapult Republican Sharron Angle to the Senate candidacy. In 2012, Obama’s re-election year, he ran against Democrat Steven Horsford for Congress, and still lost by only 8 points, despite the fact that the district had 10 percent more registered Democrats. And in 2016, when he lost by fewer than 4,000 votes, now-Rep. Jacky Rosen resurrected the telemarketing-scam allegations that cost Schneider so dearly. (Tarkanian has filed a defamation suit against Rosen. His latest opponent, Susie Lee, has also dredged up the telemarketing scam allegations — and has received a cease-and-desist order from Tarkanian’s attorneys.) By Tarkanian’s math, he’s had more than $14 million in “negative character assassination spent against me. There hasn’t been anyone who hasn’t run for senator or governor who’s taken that kind of beating. So people say, ‘Why would you want to go through that again?’”
He kicks off a soliloquy to answer the question.
“First and foremost, I was so close last election. How do you try so hard and get so close and then say, ‘Look, I’m going to walk away from it’? … And the second thing is, I was so close and she had to lie about me with that same exact defamation. So she had to do that just to win by 1 point, and I should then walk away?
“Third thing is this: My dad never talked about winning and losing. He always said, ‘You need to go out on the floor, give everything you got. You got to be mentally, emotionally, physically ready to play and give every ounce of effort on the floor. And if you lose, you could be proud of yourself.’ … I’ve beaten very, very tough primary opponents, getting to the general in bad districts, and I made those races very, very close.
“And the final factor is this: Do you allow people to say what they’ve said about me and then walk away from it when you can still win and turn the negative into a positive? If I didn’t have a chance to win, I certainly wouldn’t be running. Why wouldn’t you want to try to turn this thing around? It’s like a big bully comes up to you, slaps you around, throws mud in your face, but every time he does it, you’re getting closer to getting up and punching them back, and you’re on the verge maybe being tough enough to get it done — do you walk away after all that?”
‘He’ll be someone to reckon with’
What this overlooks is that there have been other allegations of questionable business dealings, most notably his 2013 bankruptcy brought on by a $17 million judgment against him related to a failed California land deal. This time around, there are new allegations outlined in a June memo from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee titled “The Case Against Danny Tarkanian,” including a charge that he paid himself handsomely as founder of the charitable Tarkanian Basketball Academy in Las Vegas, even as the organization lost money. Tarkanian, taking a page from Trump, has dismissed this as “fake news.” The memo also referenced a Nevada Independent report that he took $200,000 out of his parents’ life insurance policy without their knowledge in 2012 to pay off his mortgage. His mother says the family is not bothered by the latter claim, so why should anyone else care?
And then there are the cold facts of this race, which don’t paint an encouraging picture for Tarkanian’s underdog comeback story: In Congressional District 3, Democrats have a 5,700-voter edge in registration over Republicans, and at press time, Susie Lee’s campaign fund of $2.1 million dwarfs Tarkanian’s $1.2 million.
But Ray Hagar, who later served as political reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal and has since retired, suggests another reason Tarkanian keeps losing. “He’s always had a problem with the mainstream because his political leanings are just too far to the right for many people.”
Tarkanian disagrees. He believes in Trump’s “America First” policies, and views the never-ending scandals swirling around Trump as the work of antagonists gunning for him — similar to the story arcs of Jerry and Lois. And Tarkanian moderated some positions, shifting from opposing almost all abortions to supporting it prior to the fetus’s viability because, he says, “I should not be able to impose my faith on other people.” The October 1 massacre in Las Vegas prompted him to rethink gun rights. Now, he says, he supports background checks for all purchases, including gun shows, a view that puts him in conflict with the National Rifle Association.
Sue Lowden, the former state senator and longtime ally, believes this is Tarkanian’s year. And if he does win, she says, he’ll have an outsized impact for a freshman. “He’ll be a celebrity because of his last name and because he’s met so many other top Republicans over the years. He’ll be someone people listen to. He’ll be someone to reckon with.”
Tarkanian doesn’t let himself think that far ahead anymore. If he wins, to be sure, it will make all the losses worth it. If he loses? Tarkanian worries about the impact on his family, which fell into a huge funk after the 2016 failure.
“I certainly wouldn’t want them to go through this again and, if I am not successful, they won’t have to go through it again,” he says.
So this is it? Tarkanian won’t run again if his record goes to 0-6?
“No, I don’t believe I will,” he says. Then he grins. “I said that once before, and I got myself in trouble.” Another pause.
“But no, I don’t believe so. That would be it. I think.”