Gov. Jim Gibbons' crusades against tax increases and federal health care legislation aren't helping his re-election chances, according to results of a new statewide poll.
In the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Gibbons trails former federal judge Brian Sandoval 25 percent to 39 percent among likely primary voters, a doubling of the 7-point difference pollster Mason-Dixon Polling & Research found in February.
Former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon was a distant third, with 7 percent of Republicans saying they would support him in the primary, according to the poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The Republican winner is likely to face Democrat Rory Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission and son of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, in the general election.
In a potential matchup between Reid and Gibbons, 42 percent of voters chose Reid and 40 percent Gibbons, with 18 percent undecided. When a Reid-Sandoval election was surveyed, 50 percent of voters picked Sandoval, with 35 percent choosing Reid and 15 percent undecided.
That Gibbons is losing ground in the primary to Sandoval suggests he's running out of options to revive his political career. He's lagging despite his high-profile efforts to wipe out a state budget shortfall of more than $800 million in February and leading the charge against the federal health care law opposed by most Nevada voters.
Mason-Dixon managing director Brad Coker says it is unlikely Gibbons can in two months reverse a tide of negative public opinion that was building when he took office in early 2007 and strengthened during a succession of publicized personal problems and political missteps.
"He just got tied up in scandal right off the bat, and I don't know that voters have forgiven him for that," Coker said of Gibbons. "His numbers tanked and they never came back."
The long odds won't stop Gibbons from battling to the end to stay in office, said his interim campaign manager, Ron Bath.
Gibbons is "strong on small government," Bath said. "He is going to hold the line on taxes. And he believes that this health care issue is going to cost Nevadans, and he is going to work diligently to try and prevent that."
Bath said Gibbons has been gaining momentum since a special session of the Legislature in February, despite having just $35,000 in campaign cash on hand at the beginning of the year, compared with nearly $1 million for Sandoval.
Even legislative Democrats complimented Gibbons on his leadership during the special session to address a budget deficit, with the governor and leaders from both parties praising one another for a budget solution that they said didn't raise taxes.
Just a few weeks after the budget session ended, Gibbons took up the cause against the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law March 23 by President Barack Obama.
Gibbons says the law, which is opposed by 52 percent of Nevada voters and supported by 39 percent according to Mason-Dixon results, runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution by including a mandate that people purchase health insurance from a private company or pay fines.
Even though voters appear to share Gibbons' disapproval of the health care law, they don't seem prepared to reward him with their vote.
"That means that most voters in the state have already made up their minds on him," said Fred Lokken, a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. "Even within his conservative base, he has a credibility or trust problem now."
It doesn't help Gibbons that Sandoval, a former attorney general, also supports the lawsuit to block the health care bill and also says he won't support tax increases.
With about eight weeks until the primary, Sandoval says he is "absolutely laser-focused on the primary" and is continuing to raise money. On April 20, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is scheduled to headline a morning fundraiser for Sandoval at Encore resort in Las Vegas.
Republican political consultant Ryan Erwin says Sandoval is right to stay focused on the primary; there is still time for Gibbons or even Montandon to surge.
"It is such a unique and small slice of the electorate that anything can happen," Erwin says of the primary.
Gibbons' survival, at least through the June 8 primary, would give Reid better odds of winning the general election.
It's something Democrats appear to recognize. Former Reid adviser Dan Hart has founded a political action committee independent of Reid's campaign that he says will advertise on television and through direct mail in an effort to influence voters in advance of the Republican primary.
Under Nevada law, Hart's Committee to Protect Nevada Jobs can raise unlimited funds and won't have to report sources of funds until June 1, more than a week after early primary voting is under way.
Sandoval criticized the effort, saying "it is obvious" Hart is working to help Reid.
Reid's campaign says they are prepared to win no matter the Republican nominee.
"Poll results at this point are pretty much irrelevant," Reid spokesman Mike Trask said. "We're building a very strong volunteer organization, one we believe is going to be the strongest in the state."
He said Reid is particularly focused on education and discussing his plan released March 22 that would give more autonomy to individual schools and improve evaluation standards for teachers and students without increasing spending.
"As for who wins the Republican primary, you have three people who have all said they will cut education," Trask said. "We're eager to debate the issue of education and every other issue with whoever comes out of that primary."
Mason-Dixon surveyed 625 registered Nevada voters Monday through Wednesday. The respondents included 268 Democrats, 230 Republicans and 127 independents, with the majority coming from Clark County, a sampling that reflects voter registration and population distribution in Nevada. The margin of error on statewide questions was plus or minus 4 percentage points. On questions asked of Republicans only, the margin of error was plus or minus 6 percentage points.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at email@example.com or 702-477-3861.