The Washington Post

In Nevada, the Republican governor who doesn’t completely hate Obamacare

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (AP Photo/Kevin Clifford, File)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The biggest threat to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s future in the Senate isn’t the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act. Instead, it’s the Republican governor of Reid’s home state who has embraced Obamacare — or at least worked to implement it effectively.

Only eight states run by Republican governors moved to expand Medicaid to cover residents making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Only three states with Republican governors set up state-based health-care exchanges. Just two states led by Republicans — Nevada and New Mexico — did both. And Nevada is the only Republican-led state with an exchange that’s actually signing people up for insurance.

For Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), heading into an election year with sky-high approval ratings and the overwhelming favorite for a second term, embracing state benefits, even for a law as unpopular as the Affordable Care Act, was an easy decision.

“I historically was opposed to the law. And when the Supreme Court, Justice Roberts, made a decision, and it did, it’s the law of the land,” Sandoval said in an interview. “One of the options, the decision point, was, are we going to opt [for] the Medicaid [expansion], and are we going to have a state-based exchange or a federally-based exchange?”

Sandoval said that choosing to have a state-based exchange “was absolutely a no-brainer, that we would have Nevadans running a Nevada exchange, by Nevadans, for Nevadans.”

As for the results, he said: “People are getting on the site. They’re happy with it. They’re having a good experience. So I’m glad that we built a state-based exchange, because people in other states aren’t having that experience.”

More than 14,000 Nevadans have completed applications for health care reform through the state-based exchange, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half the number who are eligible to enroll in the marketplace. More than 28,500 have been deemed eligible for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program coverage.

Sandoval is occasionally mentioned as a possible candidate for national office. His status as a widely popular governor of a swing state — one that has trended increasingly blue in recent years — could make him an attractive nominee; the fact that he is Hispanic only works in his favor. His decision to embrace Medicaid expansion and the state exchange, however, may rob him of some of his luster, given the loathing that Republican voters feel for the Affordable Care Act.

But observers have always thought Sandoval would be on the 2016 ballot in a different capacity: running for Senate against Reid.

Republicans have longed for Sandoval to run against the Democratic incumbent for years. Sandoval was appointed to a federal judgeship by President George W. Bush, at Reid’s recommendation, a move seen at the time as the majority leader keeping a potentially strong opponent otherwise occupied. But Sandoval quit that post to run for governor in 2010, when he beat both a troubled Republican incumbent, Jim Gibbons, and Reid’s son, Rory.

With no strong Democrat running against him this year, Sandoval is once again at the top of the Senate Republicans’ recruitment list. He is likely to face enormous pressure to run against Reid if he wins reelection next year.

He’s not ready to declare just yet. Asked whether he would serve his full four-year term should he win reelection, Sandoval sounds unequivocal: “Yes. I love my job,” he said. “I love my job and I’m excited about the prospect of reelection.”

So that means he’s ruling out a Senate bid, halfway through that four-year term? “I haven’t even thought about that. I am exclusively thinking of reelection,” he said.

The next head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee should take note: That’s anything but a firm no.

The Senate majority leader is up for reelection in 2016—and a popular Republican may have just hinted that he's open to running. (Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)
Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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