Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak — the last man standing in the ever-so-short line of high-profile potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates — announced Monday he would not run for governor. The odds now appear very good that the Democratic Party, which has 77,000 more active registered voters than the Republican Party, will completely cede the governor’s race to incumbent Brian Sandoval.
And you thought the Republican Party was supposed to be the dysfunctional one! How could this happen in the party ruled by the iron fist of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the party that avoids primaries and keeps discipline in its ranks?
Democratic strategists surmise that having a flawed candidate at the top of the ticket may be worse than having no one. If there’s no Democratic challenger, Sandoval won’t raise as much money to defend his seat, and there won’t be as much enthusiasm among Republican voters to turn out in November. A big Sandoval re-election won’t mean as much if he was running only against lower-profile candidates, because he’d be expected to post big numbers.
Still, the lack of a candidate points up Sandoval’s preternatural popularity, his robust fundraising and the aversion of most Nevada Democrats when presented with a politically risky task.
Sandoval has been winning ever since lobbyists (and longtime friends) Pete Ernaut and Greg Ferraro pitched him the idea of running for the state’s top office, then occupied by Republican Jim Gibbons. The upbeat, smiling Sandoval in 2010 easily defeated senatorial son Rory Reid (who, ironically enough, held the job that Sisolak now holds).
Since then, Sandoval has made few mistakes and racked up a string of successes. He’s navigated two legislative sessions with few missteps. He’s charted a moderate course, expanding Medicaid, creating a state-based health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act and signing off on driver authorization cards for immigrants who came to the United States illegally.
While the Republican Party’s conservative base has objected, Sandoval’s overall approval ratings have remained high. That’s true even though the state’s insurance exchange has been plagued with startup problems, and Sandoval’s administration fielded a decidedly slow-footed response to a scandal involving the transfer of mentally ill people to other states, even when they had no friends, family or mental health professionals to meet them.
Along the way, the governor has raised a huge amount of money, more than $3 million. All of that makes challenging him a daunting task. That’s why would-be governors such as Secretary of State Ross Miller and state Treasurer Kate Marshall have opted to run for other constitutional offices (he for attorney general, she for secretary of state). And it’s why incumbent Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto has decided to sit out the 2014 election cycle, rather than risk damaging her political future with an ill-timed assault on the ramparts of Sandoval’s seemingly impregnable castle.
Sisolak was seen as a wild card — he had enough money to partly defray the costs of a statewide run, and a high profile thanks to his assiduous cultivation of the media. But even Sisolak — after months of polling, focus grouping and strategizing with advisers — concluded the race was tough. “It would have been an uphill battle. It would be an uphill battle for anyone,” he said Tuesday.
Uphill, as in “climbing Mount Everest via the North Ridge Route in the winter.”
Still, Sisolak insists it could be done, with the right campaign, the right candidate (probably someone who, like him, has enough personal wealth to self-fund a good part of the cost) and the right message. But Sisolak finally decided that person was not him. He says he’ll run for re-election in two years.
In the meantime, the curse of the Clark County Commission, which prevents members from winning election to higher office, remains unbroken. Maybe Sisolak can search the bowels of the Government Center for the legendary brass plaque that bears this inscription: “Welcome to the Clark County Commission/You can check out anytime you like/But you can never leave!”
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columinst who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.