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.