The Nevada governor’s having too much fun to replace Harry Reid
During an interview last week with Brian Sandoval, I wondered about his collection of Nevada governors’ signatures. His eyes twinkled like a child asked about his 1927 Yankees’ baseball card collection. “You want to see it?” he asked with that high-wattage smile before bounding out of his chair and returning with a binder.
Nevada’s governor then spent several minutes gingerly pulling out pieces of paper with former governor’s signatures, some going back to the 19th Century, and regaling me with the history of each one, most purchased for a pittance on eBay.
No moment could so well capture how much Sandoval loved what he was doing, how much his heart was in Nevada, how little he ever wanted to leave. This was not an incipient candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Few Nevada or D.C. insiders were surprised when Sandoval made it official Tuesday morning with a statement declining to run for Harry Reid’s seat, a little more than a year after I wrote how he was the now-retiring senator’s worst nightmare but was highly unlikely to run.
Sandoval always leaned heavily against a U.S. Senate bid. But like most such decisions, despite caricatures by the media and partisans, this one was a mixture of the personal and the political. What few know is that Sandoval did glance toward Washington, the student of history pulled toward the symmetry of taking the seat once held by Paul Laxalt, for whom Sandoval once worked in D.C. as a legislative intern. The governor actually did not make his final decision until quite recently, sources tell me, with his love for his young daughter and his job curing his low-grade Potomac fever.
“It’s all a question of timing,” said Pete Ernaut, Sandoval’s friend since they were kids. “It’s about having a young daughter, his family obligations, his current position as governor, looking at what he wants to accomplish in the next two years and what other opportunities might be out there.”
Those other opportunities range from a federal court appointment—if Sandoval’s heart is in Nevada, his mind is a judicial one—to a possible vice presidential candidate to the first Cabinet secretary in Nevada history. And in making his decision, Sandoval has created opportunities for others, most notably Rep. Joe Heck, who is now preparing for the Senate race, and state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, who is in D.C. laying the groundwork to run for Heck’s seat.
No governor I have covered loves the job more than Brian Sandoval, who just executed one of the more startling feats of political alchemy in Nevada annals: After catalyzing a red wave last year that brought a crashing end to Democratic legislative hegemony, Sandoval pushed through a dramatic education funding package and a record-setting $1.4 billion tax increase through two houses, including an Assembly stuffed with conservatives.
You could see Sandoval exulting last week in the victory few thought possible, securing his entire education reform (a universal school choice bill included) and funding package, as he went to three Las Vegas schools to sign components. And there he was again Monday, a positively joyous Sandoval at his elder daughter Maddy’s high school to sign a late addition to his budget, a program to combat severe teacher shortages. The governor’s younger daughter, 10-year-old Marissa, had been on his mind, too, when he proposed the most dramatic and expensive overhaul of the way Nevada delivers education, a historic change he clearly hopes will be his legacy.
“Do you really think, if this is my last session as governor, I would propose the things that I proposed last night, thinking I might be on a ballot?” Sandoval asked, rhetorically, during an interview after his State of the State speech in January.
Sandoval’s relentless focus on passing his State of the State promises blotted out any Senate thoughts even as the media pressed him throughout the session. The governor was both pulled toward and tugged away from the Club of 100 as the session went on, always leaning against but not finally deciding until it was clear his agenda would be enacted.
“I think he was always interested in the possibility when Reid suddenly pulled out,” said Greg Ferraro, another counselor who also goes back to childhood with Sandoval. “I think his interest was piqued. This is Laxalt’s seat.”
Sandoval mentioned Laxalt, the former governor and senator who gave up his seat in 1986 and saw Reid take it (all roads lead to and emanate from Prince Harry), right at the beginning of his Shermanesque statement released early Tuesday morning.
“In 1984, Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to serve as a legislative intern in his office in Washington, D.C.,” Sandoval’s statement began. “Coming from humble beginnings, the experience changed my life and charted me on a path of public service. It never occurred to me then that I would someday have an opportunity to be a candidate for the United States Senate.”
You can see Sandoval appreciating the bookending of his career. But this is not Paul Laxalt’s Senate anymore, with collegiality giving way to toxicity, compromise turning into gridlock.
I can see Sandoval turning to the experience of another more recent governor and senator, Richard Bryan, who took the opportunity to run at midterm (in 1988) that Sandoval did not and lasted only two terms before calling it quits.
Bryan, who wanted to be governor since he was in a highchair, adored the job, too, but the lure of the Senate beckoned, as did an almost-certain victory over an incumbent named Chic Hecht, a one-term wonder dubbed a “walking gaffe machine” by the Wall Street Journal. Bryan is hardly alone among governors in having buyer’s remorse once installed in a legislative body where you are no longer the chief but one of many Indians.
Sandoval would not have been as heavy a favorite as Bryan was—the latter started ahead by 40 points and won by only 4. But he would have been a solid choice against ex-Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
He just doesn’t want to leave what he has called the “New Nevada,” which he takes pride in helping to create, radiating preternatural optimism, bringing Tesla to the state and now reimagining education.
“He’s as connected as any governor has been in my lifetime,” Ferraro said. “He’s very engaged at many different levels. He would really find it hard to be 3,000 miles away from all of this. He’s put all of this into effect. He’s the kind of guy who wants to see it through.”
Sandoval never gave any indication he had any interest in the race, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee never seriously believed he might do it. But the governor did pause, I was told, after Reid announced in March he might not run and just as the NRSC began to court Heck, clearly seen as the second-best GOP candidate in the race.
It did not last long, even though the final decision may not have occurred to him until late May. Sandoval, who was appointed to the federal bench 10 years ago after being nominated by Reid (everything in Nevada politics is symmetrical), still thinks and behaves like a judge. He absorbs information, weighs both sides—even if he is leaning one way—and the renders his decision.
“He was always heavily leaning toward not running,” Ernaut said. “But there probably was a moment near the end of the Legislature when it was obvious the session was going to be over, the job was completed and he could focus himself on decision of running for the Senate.”
And so what seemed obvious for so long became reality when the news release came at 6 AM Tuesday: “My heart is in my responsibilities as Governor and continuing to build the New Nevada,” Sandoval declared. “My undivided attention must be devoted to being the best Governor, husband and father I can be.”
In some, maybe most cases, such releases are at best empty and at worst cover-ups. This one encapsulated all of Sandoval’s reasons for staying home.
Now he can wait for a call from the eventual GOP nominee or, perhaps, a Republican or Democratic president. Sandoval reasonably could be in line for any number of Cabinet posts, from Interior to Education to attorney general.
It probably didn’t occur to Sandoval as he was showing off those gubernatorial John Hancocks to me last week. But one signature that wasn’t in there probably will be worth a lot of money on eBay someday.