Nevada GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval is popular, but not within his party

"On paper, he's just right out of central casting for the kind of image the party needs," one GOP strategist says of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

As Republicans struggle to win Latino support and extend their toehold in the West, they could turn to the GOP’s Brian Sandoval for help.

The first Latino governor in Nevada history, he is young (by political standards), Hollywood handsome and cruising to easy reelection this year in a state that Democrats carried in the last two presidential races. Republicans would very much like to win it back in 2016.

“On paper, he’s just right out of central casting for the kind of image the party needs,” said John Weaver, a Texas-based GOP strategist.


But for all the buzz about Republicans’ strong gubernatorial bench — a roster of prospective White House contenders that includes Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie — there has been strikingly little talk about Sandoval. Even New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has had a rocky relationship with Latino activists in her Democratic-leaning state, is mentioned more often for a spot on the national ticket.

Part of the reason is distance from the East Coast’s political arbiters. Sandoval has not courted national attention, nor has he excited conservative donors and activists by battling public employee unions and government workers, the way Walker and other Republican governors have.

Part of it also is Nevada’s libertine reputation, a handicap for any state politician with outside ambitions.

But perhaps the greatest impediment to Sandoval’s national advancement is his record since taking office in January 2011, which includes a broken promise to reduce taxes, support for legal abortion, embrace of the federal healthcare law and a decision to drop the state’s legal fight against same-sex marriage — all of which are anathema to the Republican base, even if they sit fine with many Nevadans.

“Why choose someone like that?” asked Chuck Muth, a prominent conservative strategist in Las Vegas. “Because you need to make inroads with Hispanics?”

Sitting in his small Capitol office, wearing a pair of scruffy black cowboy boots and cuff links in the shape of Nevada, Sandoval shrugged off the criticism. “If you’re making everybody happy, you’re lying to somebody,” he said.


Even as he expressed disinterest in higher office, Sandoval slapped at the national GOP, suggesting the party needed to drop its litmus-test approach to issues such as abortion, taxes and Obamacare if it hopes to win the White House. “It’s something they’ve seriously got to think about,” he said. “We’ve seen what’s happened in the past elections.”

He praised the libertarian-leaning Nevada Republican Party for recently dropping antiabortion and anti-same-sex marriage planks from its official platform, suggesting the move set a good example for the national GOP. “I thought that the party showed a lot of courage in doing that,” he said.

Sandoval, 50, had long been touted by Republicans as a candidate to watch. After serving in the state Legislature, he was elected Nevada’s first Latino attorney general. President George W. Bush showcased Sandoval at the 2004 Republican National Convention, then appointed him to the federal bench.

He stepped down from his lifetime judicial appointment to run for governor in 2010, handily defeating Rory Reid, the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In Carson City, Sandoval had the good fortune to follow the cantankerous Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose erratic term was a mash-up of questionable ethics and extramarital drama. (Gibbons lost to Sandoval in the GOP primary, the first time a Nevada governor was ever denied renomination.)

Sandoval has also benefited politically from the state’s slow but discernible recovery from the Great Recession, which hit Nevada and its highly leveraged housing market harder than just about anywhere else.

He has restored millions of dollars to public education — though spending is still below pre-recession levels — and, working with Harry Reid and others, attracted significant new business to Nevada, including an Apple data center in Reno and one of six federally designated drone testing sites.

Sandoval’s largely non-ideological approach has made him broadly popular in a state where Republicans are significantly outnumbered by Democrats. But many conservatives won’t forgive him for what they call his cardinal offense: breaking a campaign pledge to roll back a 2009 tax hike.

Sandoval tried balancing his first budget without the money, but a state Supreme Court decision undercut the plan. He responded with a terse written statement. “As a former federal judge, I am cognizant of the legal issues,” Sandoval said. “As governor, I am forced to deal with their ramifications.”

Sandoval subsequently included the added tax revenue in the current two-year budget and has not ruled out extending the increase again if reelected in November.

Grover Norquist, the Washington anti-tax advocate and an influential conservative force in national races, dispatched a scathing letter accusing Sandoval of “failing to manage the state’s budget as other governors of both parties have done” and declared him persona non grata on any Republican ticket.

Sandoval’s relationship with the Nevada Republican Party has been equally fraught, notwithstanding his praise for the new platform. He skipped last month’s state convention in Las Vegas, and delegates only grudgingly endorsed his reelection. They pointedly snubbed Sandoval’s handpicked candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Mark Hutchison, and endorsed Hutchison’s opponent, former state party chairwoman Sue Lowden, in the June 10 primary.

The tension reflects the larger fight within the GOP, which continues to grapple over issues and identity even as the party anticipates big gains in the November midterm election.

Sandoval said he was well aware of prevailing party orthodoxy, including fierce resistance to Obamacare. But, he said, the law will dramatically increase the ranks of Nevadans covered by health insurance and improve the lives of many.

“I’m the one who has to go out in a community, go to a school, a town hall, what have you, and be able to look people in the eye and be able to explain why I made a decision one way or the other,” he said evenly. “And my conscience is clear when it comes to that decision, that it was the right thing for the people of Nevada.”

He said that if Republicans want to broaden their appeal nationally, they need a similar shift toward practicality and away from purity tests.

“They need to show kind of what they used to talk about,” Sandoval said. A pair of Lincoln biographies sat on the coffee table in front of him as he echoed a more recent Republican president: “I think it was Reagan who said [it], about the ‘big tent.’”