If His Running Mate Wins Next Week, GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval Could Challenge Senate Leader in 2016
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid isn’t on the Nevada ballot this year, but a competitive contest for lieutenant governor could have big implications for the Democrat’s future in Washington.
If a Republican wins the lieutenant governor slot, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a popular Republican incumbent expected to easily win re-election, would be free to challenge Mr. Reid in 2016 without turning over his office to a Democrat. If a Democrat wins, the governor likely would feel more tied to his current position, political experts say.
While Mr. Sandoval has said he remains focused on this year’s race, political observers say pressure would build for him to mount a Senate bid. A poll this summer by Harper Polling shows Mr. Sandoval could be a legitimate threat, leading Mr. Reid 53% to 43% in a hypothetical 2016 matchup.
That has made the normally low-profile lieutenant governor’s race between Republican State Sen. Mark Hutchison and Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Flores “certainly more interesting than the governor’s race,” said Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Mr. Sandoval, 51 years old, a telegenic Hispanic leader who has presided over an improving economy in the Silver State, has campaigned side by side with Mr. Hutchison, 51, pitching the two as a team.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah attended a meet-and-greet breakfast in September for Mr. Hutchison in Washington. All of that has helped the Republican raise a record $2.4 million to defeat a primary challenge and take on Ms. Flores, 35.
Mr. Reid is supporting Ms. Flores, attending campaign events for the two-term assemblywoman and helping her raise campaign cash. Ms. Flores has also gotten advice from Brandon Hall, who was Mr. Reid’s campaign manager in 2010, as well as Addisu Demissie, a former campaign manager for Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.). She has raised about $650,000 for her bid.
A Reid spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman, said the race doesn’t amount to a proxy battle between the senator and Mr. Sandoval.
“Lucy’s an inspiring candidate, she is a rising star in Nevada, and she certainly has a future in Nevada politics,” Ms. Orthman said. But, she added, there are “a number of equally important races on the ballot.”
Mr. Reid, the Democrats’ 74-year-old leader in the Senate, has proved masterful at escaping tough election challenges and eliminating potential opponents.
In 2010, an outside expenditure group affiliated with the senator ran attack ads in the GOP Senate primary against candidate Sue Lowden, perceived early in that race as the strongest potential general-election contender. She lost the primary to a tea party-aligned Republican, who Mr. Reid went on to easily defeat.
In 2004, Mr. Reid recommended Mr. Sandoval be nominated for a U.S. District Court judgeship and President George Bush obliged. Mr. Sandoval returned to electoral politics in 2009 to run for governor, beating Mr. Reid’s son, Rory, for the job in the 2010 general election.
Since then, Mr. Sandoval has been mentioned in Republican circles as a potential presidential candidate, vice-presidential running mate or an ideal challenger to Mr. Reid.
Mr. Sandoval also has had a close history with his handpicked candidate, Mr. Hutchison, who heads a large law firm in the state and was appointed by Mr. Sandoval to lead the state’s constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
Few politicians, meanwhile, have banked on their troubled pasts as much as Ms. Flores, who has been telling voters about her unlikely journey from a high-school dropout involved in a gang to a law-school graduate and political candidate. She has used that narrative to mount an atypical challenge to Mr. Hutchison.
“There obviously was no indication in my background that I would be here with you, in this way, and the reason why I am, is because people invested in me,” Ms. Flores told supporters at a recent party in a cramped, second-story apartment in Sparks, outside Reno, belonging to Democratic activist Elvira Diaz.
Ms. Diaz, who had prepared tamales in honor of Ms. Flores’ visit, compared the candidate to the late Latina pop star Selena, saying Ms. Flores would open new opportunities for women.
While tapping into the state’s growing Latino population is a strategy that might have worked in the past, this year is shaping up to be a difficult one for Nevada Democrats, with early voting that began Oct. 18 showing Republicans with a sizable advantage.