The most important race you’ve never heard of

August 21, 2013

Serving as lieutenant governor of Nevada is not one of the more prestigious positions in American politics. It’s not even a sure sign you’ll win a promotion to the top spot; since Nevada became a state, only seven of the 34 people who have served as lieutenant governor have gone on to become governor.

But this election cycle, Nevada political operatives are buzzing about the race to replace outgoing Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R). The winner of next year’s election, after all, may set off a string of dominoes that could determine who runs against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2016.

So far, Republican state Sen. Mark Hutchison is the only candidate to say publicly he will run for the seat. Hutchison is a close ally of Gov. Brian Sandoval; Sandoval, Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Joe Heck will headline a fundraiser for Hutchison in September.

Hutchison may not get the Republican primary to himself. Former state Sen. Sue Lowden, who finished second in the 2010 Republican Senate primary, has also said she’s interested in running. Lowden, who was once chairwoman of the state Republican Party, has learned a lesson from her loss to former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle: This time around, she’s hinted she will position herself as the conservative alternative to Hutchison, the establishment favorite.

Democratic state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores is considering the race, according to local political observers, but she’s far from the party’s first choice. But would-be top contenders like Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller have both said they won’t run; Masto said in June she wouldn’t be on the ballot in 2014, despite Reid’s urging, while Miller is likely to run for attorney general.

But Reid isn’t done recruiting.

“Team Reid is going all out to find a strong [lieutenant governor] candidate,” said Jon Ralston, Nevada’s resident political expert. “Sandoval already has recruited a strong candidate … and the Dems need one.”

Why is the Senate majority leader so concerned about a minor state position? If Republicans hold the lieutenant governor’s seat, that could free up Sandoval for a race against Reid, two years farther down the line.

There are few more strategic political thinkers in American politics than Reid, who has a long history of looking around corners to limit threats from potential opponents. And there are few greater threats to Reid’s political future than Sandoval, one of Nevada’s more popular politicians.

If Sandoval cruises to reelection in 2014, which looks likely at this point, Republicans will quickly push him to run against Reid in 2016. And if a Republican holds the lieutenant governor’s office, Sandoval will have fewer qualms about resigning to serve in the Senate. Republicans close to Sandoval acknowledge the possible chain of events, though they say the governor is completely focused on running for reelection next year.

Kristen Orthman, a Reid spokeswoman, said the senator is engaged in recruiting candidates up and down the ballot next year, from constitutional offices to the state Senate, which Democrats hold by just one seat. “His priority is to win every race and for every race to be competitive,” Orthman said in an e-mail.

But the lieutenant governor’s race merits special attention, and Reid’s interest in it hints that he’ll run for another term in 2016 — or at least that he wants the option to run, free of the burden of a popular opponent like Sandoval.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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