Looks like smooth sailing for Sandoval re-election

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval isn’t on the national Democrats’ target list in the 2014 election, a sign that the popular leader could coast to an easy re-election.

Less than a year before Election Day, no strong Democratic candidate has stepped up to oppose Sandoval. That gives him a big headstart and raises questions about whether Sandoval’s eventual Democratic foe will get much financial or other support in a long-odds attempt to defeat Nevada’s first Hispanic governor.

Several high-profile Democrats spurned entreaties to run against Sandoval, leaving Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak as the strongest potential Democratic contender. He said he’s taking his time to decide whether to launch a campaign.

Sisolak said he has spoken often with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who runs the Nevada Democratic Party from afar, and with the Democratic Governors Association, the group standing down in the race.

“It’s not something I’m rushing into,” Sisolak, 59, said Friday in an interview. “I’m confident that if I do get into the race I’ll get all the support I need.”

If not, a Sandoval win might resemble Tuesday’s New Jersey election: Popular Governor Chris Christie, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, easily won re-election after facing a Democrat who had little national party support. Christie, a Republican leading a Democratic state, won 60.4 percent of the vote compared with 38.1 percent for his opponent, Barbara Buono.

In Nevada, Sandoval’s approval ratings hover at 60 percent, making him one of the most popular governors in the United States.

On Thursday in Washington, D.C., the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, told reporters and analysts that the organization doesn’t plan to campaign against Sandoval.

“That isn’t one of our targeted races,” Shumlin said.

The governors association later clarified that it was still in the recruiting stage, a message echoed by the Nevada Democratic Party.

“We’re still in the candidate recruitment process and look forward to watching Brian Sandoval explain next year why the only thing he has to show for his four years as governor is Nevada having the highest unemployment rate in the country, being dead-last in education, and a patient dumping scandal that has brought national headlines,” said Zach Hudson, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

Sandoval, 50, drew negative headlines this year for lagging in addressing a problem with the state’s mental health hospital, which had been busing patients out of state. In several instances, patients were bused to California with no follow-up plan made with relatives or mental health officials there.

Nevada’s unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, the highest in the nation, but much lower than when Sandoval took office in January 2011, when it was 14.2 percent.

Robert Uithoven, a longtime GOP strategist in Nevada, said it’s clear the Democrats are struggling to field a candidate to oppose Sandoval. He said the national Democrats’ disinterest in the race is a sign of defeat.

“In this case, it looks like they’re raising the white flag,” Uithoven said.

Democrats will likely focus most in 2014 on trying to defeat Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and on holding majority control of the state Senate, Uithoven said.

Several high-profile Democrats have spurned efforts to recruit them to run against Sandoval. Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said she isn’t interested in running for governor in 2014. Another possible candidate, Secretary of State Ross Miller, is running for attorney general.

Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with The Cook Political Report, attended the lunch meeting where the Democratic Governors Association announced its target list for the 2014 elections. She said Democrats have a better chance of defeating GOP governors in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine, Ohio and Wisconsin. Wasting money in Nevada might not be wise, she said.

“I suspect that part of the reason is that Sandoval is in pretty good shape and there is not an obvious Democratic challenger,” Duffy said. “More interesting to me is that Reid doesn’t seem bothered by this decision.”

If Sandoval wins re-election, speculation is he may challenge Reid for his U.S. Senate seat in 2016, or half way through his gubernatorial term.

As a result, the lieutenant governor’s race will see more competition as Democrats try to win the seat as a way to block any plans Sandoval might have for leaving the top job early. The lieutenant governor would take over if Sandoval resigns. Sandoval recruited state Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, to run for lieutenant governor.

The Sandoval campaign said it’s taking nothing for granted. Sandoval raised $643,841 for his campaign last year, according to a year-end report filed with the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office, and spent $300,815. He has most of the big money donors in the state locked up.

“We fully expect an opponent and are preparing for a campaign,’” said Jeremy Hughes, Sandoval’s campaign manager.

So far, only one Democrat has announced a gubernatorial campaign: political novice Chris Hyepock, who launched a campaign website this week.

Hyepock, who said he has worked in the gaming and resort business for 14 years, said Friday he has been considering a run for the past three years.

He said he prepared by conducting man-on-the-street interviews with about 1,000 people. He said 60 percent told him they would consider voting for a political unknown if the person “made sense” even if the odds were against him.

Hyepock, 35, said he’s running because he believes government is a victim of “bad management” with tax dollars misspent and leaders unaccountable. He said has been going to Democratic club meetings the past two months to meet local activists.

“They’ve never seen my face before, so they’re still trying to feel me out,” he said, adding he’s glad no other Democrat is in the race yet. “I hope it stays that way.”

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.