By Jon Ralston, POLITICO
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is nearly impossible not to like. He has a sunny disposition and seems ever eager to work with Democrats, who have nary a bad word to say about him. He’s highly popular in Nevada, with approval numbers in the mid-60s, and he stays on message as well as anyone in politics.
He is, in a phrase, the anti-Harry Reid.
Which is why the prospect of Sandoval facing off against the occasionally dyspeptic, sharply partisan and manifestly unpopular Senate majority leader in the 2016 U.S. Senate race has some Republicans writing Reid’s political eulogy.
“It would be a wipeout,” said one Nevada insider. “He is 100 percent the perfect candidate against Harry Reid.”
Reid knows this, of course. No one plays the political chessboard like the majority leader; following his moves sometimes feels like watching a real life House of Cards, without the murders. He saw the Sandoval threat coming nearly a decade ago.
Back then, Reid managed to sideline the up-and-coming Sandoval with a federal judgeship. At the time it was considered a masterstroke, a ruthless political killing couched as a bipartisan act. But lifetime appointments don’t always stick.
Sandoval left the bench in 2009 and defeated Reid’s son, Rory, in a race for governor. Now it may be Reid the Elder’s turn as Sandoval could defeat two members of the same family for the two highest offices in the state.
There’s just one question: Does Sandoval even want to run for the U.S. Senate?
In more than a quarter center of covering Nevada politics, I’ve never seen another governor who loves the job as much as Sandoval does.
“I get up every day looking forward to going to work,” he told me earlier this week. “I made decisions today that affected the economy and tourism, that affected business and housing. I don’t think you can do that from 3,000 miles away.”
Those close to him say he’s not looking for a steppingstone, despite the steady upward trajectory he’s followed from lawmaker to chief gaming regulator, attorney general, federal judge and now governor.
“I’d say there is a 99 percent chance he would not run,” said one Sandoval adviser.
But Reid’s suspicions surely were aroused when the governor went out of his way to recruit state Sen. Mark Hutchison as a candidate for lieutenant governor. The last time a Nevada governor bothered to choose a candidate for the No. 2 spot was in 1986, when Richard Bryan selected Clark County District Attorney Bob Miller; Bryan then ran successfully for the Senate in 1988, leaving the state to Miller.
History does repeat itself. And Harry Reid, he of the near-death electoral experiences, does not want to see that happen. So after failing to recruit a top-flight contender to take on Sandoval, he went to Plan B: electing a Democratic lieutenant governor, one who would prevent Sandoval from leaving at midterm.
Sandoval acknowledges that he recruited Hutchison into the race, but he laments that the media immediately interpreted it as a political move. “I am looking forward four and 10 and 20 years,” he told me. “We need to develop strong leaders in the Republican Party…. He was someone I felt would be a strong leader for the state in the future.”
The near future, perhaps?
Again, Sandoval demurs. “I really love this job, and I feel very fortunate to be able do it,” Sandoval said of the governorship. “It’s not like the U.S. Senate has been my life’s goal. I’ve never said anything about that.”
In that way, the ever-earnest governor, who clearly thinks the political aspects of his job are drudgery, again is the opposite of Reid, who thrives on moving the chess pieces. But despite his Boy Scout mien, Sandoval surely wants to keep his 2016 options open. And Reid must know what anyone with a passable political IQ can foresee: Once Sandoval coasts to re-election in November, the governor’s phone will light up with calls from the likes of Mitch McConnell (if he’s still around), RNC boss Reince Priebus and others, all with a simple message: Run, Brian, run.
That kind of pressure may be hard for Sandoval to resist, especially when early polls likely will show him crushing Reid. The governor, who turns 51 this year, acknowledged to me that he’s been unable to say no when opportunity has knocked several times before. “When I was in the legislature, I didn’t expect to be approached by Gov. (Bob) Miller to sit on the Gaming Commission,” Sandoval recalled. “It never occurred to me as attorney general when I was approached to serve as a federal judge.”
Of course, the person who made that last call, toward the end of 2004, was Harry Reid himself.
In 2009, Sandoval again received some unexpected calls he couldn’t refuse, from Nevada Republicans who were petrified of the prospect of serving up a fatally damaged GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons to voters. So Sandoval left the bench to run for governor, just as he had departed the legislature to become a gaming commissioner and just as he had vacated the attorney general’s office to become a judge. Detect a pattern here?
Can Sandoval resist if another call comes at the end of this year? “Hello, governor, this is Mitch McConnell….”
Fear may not be in Reid’s DNA, but he’s smart enough to be concerned about Sandoval, who has in his first three-plus years become a political juggernaut.