In Nevada, Brian Sandoval is formidable candidate with some obvious weaknesses

Brian Sandoval is only 46 years old, but he has already served four years in the state legislature, three years in the Nevada Gaming Commission, three years as Attorney General and four years as a federal district judge. Last month, he resigned from his lifetime appointment to the judicial bench and this week announced he would run for Governor in 2010.

Sandoval’s entry is welcome news for Republicans, who are afraid of being stuck with unelectable incumbent Jim Gibbons. Nevada is the GOP’s version of New York: An unpopular governor will head towards an all but certain general election disaster if a popular Attorney General (or former AG) does not snatch the nomination first. Other Republicans are also running against Gibbons - former State Sen. Joe Heck and North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon - but Sandoval’s profile makes him the favorite.

Given the diversity of his experience and the ease with which he won his one and only statewide race - in the 2002 open race for AG that Democrats were defending, he prevailed 58% to 33% - he will also be a formidable contender in the general election. Add to that the fact that his last name’s opponent is likely to be Reid due to an unexpected drop-out in the Democratic field and that Sandoval’s Hispanic background could allow him to appeal to a group that has been trending leftward in recent years, and that might be enough to annoint him the front-runner to win the entire election.

That said, Sandoval comes to the race with some obvious weaknesses. The first is his seeming ability to stay put more than a few years. He left his AG job before completing his first term, or even his third year. Sure, that was to take a plum lifetime appointment to the federal bench, but he was unable to get himself to stay in that position for a full four years - the amount of time he’ll have to stay put just to finish a single gubernatorial term. His opponents are sure to make a big deal of Sandoval’s bizarre history, questioning whether he can be trusted to stick around the Governor’s Mansion and to stay interested in his job. Montandon already launched this attack line in a fundraising letter:

Brian Sandoval quit mid-term in the Nevada Assembly. Brian Sandoval quit in the middle of his term as attorney general, virtually handing the office to a liberal Democrat in the next election. And now, Brian Sandoval says he will quit his job as a federal judge and give (President) Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint another liberal judge to the federal bench. Since when is quitting a qualification for governor?

Second, Sandoval might have some problems appealing to conservatives in the Republican primary. For one, it is none other than Harry Reid who recommended that President Bush appoint him to the federal bench in 2005. Second, Sandoval is taking some moderate positions on issues on which the GOP base does not tend to be forgiving. He just declared he supported the state’s newly instituted domestic partnerships “because it’s the right thing to do;” in the spring, Gibbons had vetoed the bill. This should be a major fault line between the two Republicans.

Third, Democrats should be able to use Sandoval’s connections to unpopular Republicans. A year before Bush appointed him to a lifetime post on the federal bench, Sandoval served as the chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in Nevada. I can see the Democratic ads writing themselves, attacking Sandoval for benefiting from patronage and a politically motivated judicial appointment. Furthermore, the entire brand of the Nevada GOP is damaged by scandals engulfing Gibbons and John Ensign; Sandoval is running against the former, but can he distance himself from Republicans in general, Ensign in particular? The RGJ reports the two discussed Sandoval running for Governor, and some have questioned whether he engaged in political activities from the bench.

One last consequence of Sandoval’s entrance: It makes it far more unlikely that Rep. Dean Heller will take the risk of leaving his House seat to run for Governor. That’s a shame for Democrats, who would have had a chance to contest his district as an open seat - though NV-02 is red enough that the GOP would have been favored to hold on to it. At this point, Democrats should hope they can make the district bluer in the next round of redistricting and then have a shot at an open seat if Heller challenges Ensign in 2012.

Democrats get a strong gubernatorial candidate of their own, in SC

Democrats got a strong candidate of their own in a gubernatorial election this week: State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex announced he would run in South Carolina’s increasingly chaotic open race. SC is conservative enough that the GOP will have the upper-hand no matter who Democrats nominate. Yet, recent events - Mark Sanford’s refusal to take stimulus funds, his affair and other scandals, Joe Wilson’s outburst - are giving Democrats hope they can ride voter discontent. As the state’s only Democratic statewide official, Rex can lay a claim at having the best shot at doing so.

It’s not like Rex has a long history in statewide politics, nor that he is well entrenched: He was first elected in 2006 in what was the tightest statewide race in state history (455 votes). Before that, he served as the dean of education or the president of various universities. That experience might serve him great in most election cycles as voters often want their politicians to have meaningful things to say on education matters, but 2010 is likely to be all about the economy; Rex seems to be aware of that, as he highlighted economic issues in his campaign kick-off and called himself the “Turnaround Governor.”

He’ll have to face a competitive Democratic primary - two state Senators are also running - before he can even think of the general election. This contest’s biggest question mark continues to be what will happen with Sanford. Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer had promised that he would not run in 2010 if Sanford resigned and he became the incumbent, but he is now saying that his offer is only effective until next month. Given that few people took him seriously in the first place, it remains to be seen how this will impact impeachment talks that continue to swirl in Columbia.

7 Responses to “In Nevada, Brian Sandoval is formidable candidate with some obvious weaknesses”

  1. 1 Cliff

    OK, and this is honestly has nothing to do with the fact I’m a Republican: N-O-B-O-D-Y C-A-R-E-S about Sandoval leaving some jobs before his term was up when it was essentially to move up to higher office. Nobody. If that’s his “weakness” then the D’s won’t even crack 40% against him in the general. It’ll be a huge landslide.

    Being chairman of the Bush/Cheney campaign won’t matter either. The far left will go apoplectic about it, but nobody else will care.

    His support of civil unions could cause him problems in the primary IF he had a realistic primary challenger that could be unified around. Unfortunately, for D’s, A. He doesn’t, B. The ones he does have will be splintered.

    If Sandoval has a weakness, it’s that he’s running to take Jim Gibbons place. If they can tie him to Gibbons (i.e. Bush is a Republican, McCain is a Republican = McCain is just like Bush), that could hurt him. But given he wasn’t even in partisan office when Gibbons was elected and that the D’s don’t really have a great candidate, it’ll make that argument a lot harder to make.

    The only thing that could win this one for the Dems is Diana Titus deciding to give it another run. I think that would make it a tossup. She could pull a Jindal and basically run on “If you had to do it all over again…” sort of campaign. But she isn’t likely to run, and Reid Jr. will be crushed by Sandoval.

    I do think Jim Rex’s candidacy is interesting…it’s not impossible that Sanford’s idiocy will hand the Governor’s mansion to him. But remember what happened LAST TIME a Superintendent of Public Education in South Carolina ran for another statewide office? Jim DeMint crushed her even though he had to go through a very divisive primary and DeMint is a somewhat polarizing candidate.

  2. 2 Taniel


    I would agree with you that attacks on career jumps rarely if ever go anywhere (for instance, Democrats will get nowhere attackin Ayotte on this issue in NH), but Sandoval’s jumps have been systematic enough that I can see it becoming an issue. Also, we cannot talk of a “primary challenger” to Sandoval since he is not the incumbent; it’s up to him to convince GOP voters that he is the best alternative to Gibbons. If he gets too many hits on issues like civil unions, that could certainly given an opening to the other candidates. After all, remember that Joe Heck was considered one of the best challengers to Harry Reid until he announced he would run for Governor instead.

    At the end of the day, I think Sandoval’s biggest asset is the (new) likelihood that he’ll face Reid. Rory is not Harry, but the senator’s numbers are so dismal that it will be very tough for his son to be elected statewide while his father is also campaigning. I just don’t see Titus running now that she got herself elected in Congress - though perhaps Buckley’s withdrawal will make her reconsider?

    As for South Carolina: I never claimed Rex would make the race a toss-up: Republicans obviously are favored to keep the governorship. But to the extent that Democrats are hoping to contest the race, a statewide official is better than no statewide official. Also, Tenenbaum’s defeat to DeMint came in a cycle that saw the GOP capture five Southern open seats (along with SC, they picked-up Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Florida).

  3. 3 Cliff

    Also, we cannot talk of a “primary challenger” to Sandoval since he is not the incumbent; it’s up to him to convince GOP voters that he is the best alternative to Gibbons.

    Disagree. Gibbons is so unpopular that he’s barely even an obstacle. If Gibbons is actually stupid enough to run again, he’ll get hammered worse then Cuomo will destroy Patterson.

    I doubt Gibbons will even bother to run, but if he does, it’ll only divide the non-Sandoval field that much more and make it that much easier for Sandoval to win the primary.

    I largely agree with your assessment of SC.

  4. 4 Taniel

    Cliff, I did not mean that Gibbons has any chance of winning this race. I highly doubt he does, no matter how splintered the GOP primary is. All I was saying was that it’s still up to his rivals to position themselves as Gibbons’s clear opponent - and while Sandoval is the front-runner, he is not the incumbent and someone like Heck still has a shot at clinching the nomination. I really have no information as to whether Gibbons runs, it seems to me that he’s in the same position as Paterson: He would really want to but will face a lot of party pressure to step down.

  5. 5 Jaxx Raxor

    While I do believe that Harry Reid is being underestimated in the Senate race (for one, he has yet to spent his huge warchest or even start really campaigining in his home state, being wholy focused on his job as Senate Majority leader right now) I agree taht it may be too much for Nevadans to vote for two Reids, and Rory Reid would probably struggle against any Republican not named Gibbons.

    In terms of the NV Governor’s Primary, I agree with Taniel that while Brian Scandoval may be the frontrunner, the fact that he isn’t the incumbent isn’t going to scare aware challangers, and he doesn’t have the profile to easily clear the primary field. Also, while there have been several polls showing Patterson’s weakness in a primary against Cumuo and the GE, there have been much fewer in Nevada. I don’t believe there has been any recent polls of the GOP primary, and until something is seen otherwise, then perhaps Gibbons does have a chance to win the primary with his opponnents splitting the anti-Gibbons vote, or it could go as Cliff describes, Sandoval winning with everyone else splitting the rest of the vote. I’m just not sure. Lets not forget that in Kentucky Fletcher won the primary despite his unpopularity (although he probably wasn’t as bad as Gibbons).
    One more thing: I don’t think that Dina Titus is going to give up her House seat to run again. It would create great problems for the House Democrats to defend her open seat as it only has a light blue lean and the right GOP canditate could make it competive (like in Sestak’s district). Shes safer in her house seat I believe. One thing I do wonder is if someone else will challange Rory Reid in the Dem primary.. if he keeps on doing bad in the general against anyone not named Gibbons then someone else of profile is bound to jump in.

    In terms of South Carolina, the state has become heavily Republican at the state level, catching up to the long Federal republicain lean it’s had for so long, but its not only Sandford but Republican not being confortable with Bauer, who would take over if Sandford resigned, that can give Democrats some hope. This is still a lean Republican seat at best for Democrats, but if it detoritates further then Rex could benefit.

  6. 6 Panos

    I don’t know about your sources Taniel but Chris Cilizza claimed this Friday that NH Democrats are succesfull in painting Ayotte as a “finger-in-the-wind politician” who broke her word to the Governor in order to gain politically.

  7. 7 Taniel


    I saw that sentence, but (1) I haven’t seen him write up any evidence of that, (2) the polling certainly doesn’t indicate that Hodes is making inroads (3) I took the “finger-in-the-wind politician” line as referring less to the resigning-from-AG controversy than to the fact that Ayotte doesn’t have many clear policy positions and is tuning them as she now campaigns.

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