Where’s the modern-day Joe Neal, Democrats?

The year was 2002, and popular Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn was running for re-election.

The former banker and moderate Republican had the support of the state’s big industries. Rumors that he would propose a major tax increase after the election went virtually unaddressed as he geared up for the campaign, which was shaping up to be smooth because no Democrat had emerged to challenge him.

That’s when state Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, stepped up. Neal knew he didn’t have much of a chance to defeat Guinn, but he also knew that Democratic issues would be ignored if somebody didn’t run.

So he did. And, as expected, he got creamed: Guinn took 68 percent of the vote to Neal’s 22 percent, losing by a margin of more than 230,000 votes. But he made the Democratic case in a way that only Neal could.

So where’s the Joe Neal of 2014? Sadly, it appears we won’t get one.

Like Guinn, current Gov. Brian Sandoval has strong establishment support for re-election. The Republican has raised more than $3 million; his campaign finance report is filled with the names of the state’s biggest companies. According to the Review-Journal’s Laura Myers, he’s signed up nearly 3,000 volunteers and maintains an approval rating of 60 percent.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Sandoval has shown a wide moderate streak: He approved taxes, expanded the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, established a state-based health insurance exchange and supported driver’s licenses for people who came to the United States illegally. A Northern Nevadan by birth, Sandoval has taken steps to combat a potential line of attack that he’s the “governor of Reno” by approving more transportation funds for Clark County and signing off on a budget that shifts more higher education money to Southern Nevada.

Where’s the Joe Neal of 2014? Some conservatives might argue we don’t need one. (To be sure, a correction in a Hotline email newsletter this week apologizing for mistaking Sandoval for a Democrat was fraught with unintentional irony.)

The only Democrat who’s been seriously mentioned as a challenger to Sandoval is Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, whose most recent annual campaign finance report shows him having raised just $30,000. (In fairness, Sisolak was just re-elected in 2012 and has not likely been hitting the fundraising circuit very hard.) But to be competitive with Sandoval, he’d have to raise millions of dollars, or use his own wealth, much of which was accumulated in a lawsuit against Clark County over airport air space rights.

Sisolak, however, is no Neal: He’s eagerly taken on labor unions, especially Clark County firefighters, for alleged sick leave abuse. And, although he’s voted for some taxes and fee increases, he’s generally tried to position himself as anti-tax.

The closest thing to Neal this year is state Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, whom my colleague J. Patrick Coolican, formerly of the Las Vegas Sun, first encouraged to run, for much the same reasons Neal did. Segerblom is in the middle of his term and would not have to give up his seat to mount a bid, which would surely be fun for him and for the journalists covering his race, even if his odds of victory are long. But it would still require a lot of hard work and serious fundraising.

Then again, maybe Democrats are thinking they ought to field nobody against Sandoval, hoping the lack of a high-profile race at the top of the ticket will lead to complacency on the Republican side and depress GOP turnout. But if Sandoval has no opponent, he’ll be free to spend all his cash helping Republicans elsewhere on the ballot. Democrats need to win some key races if they want to hold on to the state Senate and some constitutional offices. Plus, there’s a Democratic case to be made for better schools, better mental health care and a more intelligent tax policy.

Sadly, however, there’s probably going to be no one to make that case. This time, we’ve got no Joe Neal.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.