Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid has declared that he will seek reelection in 2016, and Republicans are determined not to put up another weak candidate like the one he beat with barely 50 percent of the vote in 2010.
The only problem is that the GOP’s dream candidate — a popular, polished governor — doesn’t seem interested in moving to Washington.
As the Republican Party struggles to project a new face, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, 51, presents an alluring profile. He is young, Hispanic and experienced, and most important, he has won three statewide elections in a swing state that President Obama captured twice — the last time, in 2014, with 70 percent of the vote.
“I want him in the Senate. I want to serve with him,” said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has known Sandoval since the two were in the legislature in the 1990s. “He has a real opportunity that most of us serving in the Senate don’t really have, and that’s the opportunity to use the United States Senate to do bigger and better things. In other words, I see him as a VP candidate. I see him as a justice. I see him as attorney general or a Cabinet member. Those are some real opportunities, depending on what he wants to do.”
But Sandoval has sent a clear message to national Republicans: He’s not interested in discussing a Senate race until he completes this year’s legislative session. And national Republicans are increasingly convinced that he’s not interested in taking on Reid, 75.
The latest evidence of Sandoval’s disinterest is the way he breaks from the Republican playbook in tackling the issue he has deemed his top priority: improving Nevada’s education system.
Sandoval introduced a business license fee last week, one of 30 taxes he would raise and extend to generate $1.1 billion in new revenue for education.
Education “is a priority, and it’s very low-performing in our state right now. We have to make an investment, given the success that we’ve had in economic development,” Sandoval said in an interview. “We’ve got these great, high-technical companies that are coming into our state, and I have to ensure that we have a workforce for that, so part of that is improving the quality of education in Nevada.”
The irony is that Sandoval’s major win in 2014 may have made his push for tax increases more difficult. Before this year, Democrats controlled both chambers of the state legislature; Sandoval’s coattails swept a number of ultra-conservative Republicans into the new GOP majorities. And although Democrats have expressed support for Sandoval’s plan to raise taxes to pay for education, conservative Republicans have been more reluctant.
“The governor’s budget defies the voter,” Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, a leader of the conservative faction in Carson City, told Las Vegas’s Fox News affiliate in February. Fiore has said that the antitax faction has enough votes to block Sandoval’s proposed budget.
If Sandoval’s plan has any hope of passing, he’ll need every Democrat, and some of those conservatives, to vote with him.
“This state has been an antitax state forever,” said Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican strategist who counts Sandoval as a friend. “But what happened in the interim is that we grew, extraordinarily fast.
“You can’t live on the system we have,” he added. “The state won’t function properly unless we understand it needs more revenue to keep pace.”
Sandoval said that growth is exactly why the state needs to raise taxes, despite conservative opposition.
“I was elected to solve problems, and I don’t think it’s conservative to have bad roads, I don’t think it’s conservative to have bad schools, I don’t think it’s conservative to have to go through budget crises every two years. So I’m taking the difficult issues straight on. That’s what I was elected to do,” he said.
Sandoval has made a career out of working closely with Democrats and bucking Republican orthodoxy. As a young lawyer, he won a seat in the legislature by defeating an establishment-favored Republican. After a few terms in the legislature, Sandoval was appointed by Gov. Bob Miller (D) to serve on the state Gaming Commission, where he worked to overturn a ban on betting on college sports. He is, and has been during his entire career, an advocate of abortion rights.
Reid offered twice to have Sandoval appointed to the federal bench. Sandoval turned down that offer in 2001, was elected to the attorney general’s office, then accepted a second offer in 2005. He won unanimous confirmation in the Senate. Some have speculated that Reid wanted to give Sandoval a lifetime appointment to sideline a potential rival.
“Obviously, that was the rumor,” Heller said. “It was so broadly discussed that that was the perception of it. Whether it’s true or not, that became the reality of the situation.”
But Sandoval held on to that appointment for only four years before leaving the bench to run against the embattled Gov. Jim Gibbons, whom he beat in the GOP primary in 2010.
Political observers and those who know him best are extremely skeptical that Sandoval wants to mount a campaign for the Senate.
“While he understands politics, he is motivated by his deep love for the state and what he thinks is right,” says Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada political observer. “He loves being governor as much as anyone I have ever covered. He is a student of Nevada history and is motivated by the legacies of former governors.”
“The one thing he has expressed no interest in publicly or privately: U.S. Senate,” Ralston said.
Sandoval’s advisers have told national Republicans to tread lightly. He has not fielded calls from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) or National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (Miss.). When Sandoval speaks with Heller, the Senate race is not a dominant topic.
And Sandoval maintains a cordial relationship with Reid. The two have worked together on efforts to keep nuclear waste out of Yucca Mountain and on a campaign to bring a major Tesla factory to northern Nevada last year. Sandoval called Reid to wish him well before Reid’s second surgery on his injured eye earlier this year.
Instead of plotting a Senate campaign, Sandoval spends his time off keeping close tabs on his son, who plays basketball at a small college in Oregon. He spends his time on the job time pushing for the tax increases — increases that his own electoral success has put in jeopardy.
“He’ll have his moments of angst, I’m sure. He’s building a good coalition of moderate Republicans, some conservatives who understand the need [to raise revenue], and Democrats who absolutely understand the need,” Rogich said.
Republicans have other options if Sandoval says no. Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson and former lieutenant governor Brian Krolicki are all mentioned as possible Reid rivals. Conservative Las Vegas city councilman Bob Beers already has declared his candidacy.
But the Reid machine is known for dismantling opponents, and none of the other possible candidates have the name recognition that could blunt the inevitable attacks. For Republicans searching for a Democratic Senate seat to win, the one contender who has won with 70 percent of the vote looks content in Carson City.