CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval was popular with voters before heading into the 2013 legislative session, with a 52-28 favorability rating.
Those numbers from a poll released a year ago are likely to improve for the moderate Republican governor after winning approval of most of his agenda from the Democratically controlled Legislature.
Several observers suggest Sandoval will be a formidable if not unbeatable opponent as he runs for re-election next year.
If voters favor him with another term, they can expect more of the same: a steady, fiscally conservative chief executive who will work with Democrats to push an agenda of education reform and economic growth.
Sandoval even has been mentioned as a potential candidate in the national political arena, including as a presidential contender, although he has been unwavering in his decision to seek re-election.
Some have suggested he might challenge U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., when the majority leader comes up for re-election in 2016.
GOVERNOR: NO REGRETS
The just-concluded legislative session was good for the governor. His victories included increased funding for public education and a bigger payroll tax cut for Nevada businesses.
A veto of a universal background check bill for gun sales will likely solidify his credentials within his own party.
And support of a driver authorization card program for residents in the country illegally along with $50 million to help schoolchildren master English could expand his base going into his 2014 re-election campaign.
His only major disappointments were education-related: The failure to get his bill approved to give tax breaks to companies that donate money to send some public school students to private and religious schools and another providing $2 million for the Teach for America program.
But Sandoval, in comments after a brief special session ended June 4, said he had no regrets.
His list of accomplishments is lengthy, from legalizing Web poker to extending the life of the Millennium scholarship for eligible Nevada high school graduates.
To be fair, many of Sandoval’s priorities were shared by both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature.
But any Democrat looking to challenge Sandoval as he seeks a second four-year term will have an uphill battle to say the least. With his strong support from gaming, mining and other business groups, it will be tough to find enough cash to run a campaign against him.
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said Sandoval has vulnerabilities.
The veto of the gun background check bill could come back to haunt him if outside groups pour money into the Nevada governor’s race, he said.
And while Sandoval has accomplished his agenda, “if you set the bar low it’s not hard to succeed,” Segerblom said.
The governor has not addressed the major issues facing Nevada, including the lack of tax revenue the state needs to properly fund education and other needs, particularly in Southern Nevada, he said.
“You can’t have 40 kids in a class and not have kids graduate and call yourself successful,” Segerblom said.
David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Sandoval also has an advantage because the economy is finally on the upswing.
“The budget debate was not about more cutting,” he said. “He was also able to take many of the Democratic talking points off the table by funding ELL (English language learners) and all-day kindergarten. The only complaint was that he didn’t go far enough.
“He’s got to be pretty happy,” Damore said. “He came out of the session unscathed. When there was new money, he put it into popular programs.”
POTENTIAL CHALLENGERS QUIET SO FAR
Sandoval could have been hurt some in Southern Nevada by voters concerned about road construction equity with the north, but with the Interstate 15 expansion project called Project Neon going forward and the new law that will allow the gas tax to be raised in Southern Nevada for road projects, he appears to have successfully skirted that issue, Damore said.
And those considered to be the most likely Democratic challengers, including Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, have opted to take a pass on the race, he said.
So far the only Democrat seriously considering the race is Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.
Sisolak is still evaluating a run, but said if he gets into the race it will be to win, not to serve as a sacrificial lamb.
Sandoval repeatedly rejected efforts to raise new taxes for the 2013-15 budget, saying any new levies would damage Nevada’s economy, which is on the mend.
SANDOVAL CALLED CLEAR FAVORITE
State Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said Sandoval is the clear favorite to win another term next year.
“I think he is in a better position today than before the session started and he was in a great position then,” he said.
Any criticism that Sandoval did not do enough to fund education is unjustified, Roberson said.
“Democrats did zero for education,” he said. “The governor proposed more money for education and followed through. It’s the difference between leading versus having a press conference and not following through.”
Sandoval adviser Pete Ernaut said the top achievement for Sandoval was not making any mistakes that an opponent could capitalize on in a campaign.
“There were no flubs or overreaches,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Achieving 90 percent of his agenda also bodes well for his re-election chances, said Ernaut, who also worked as a major lobbyist in the 2013 session for gaming, mining and other interests.
PATIENT DUMPING CHALLENGE
One of the most challenging issues was not legislative, but the allegations of patient dumping involving the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, and Sandoval “handled it very adeptly,” he said.
The state Democratic Party has criticized Sandoval on the issue, however, and continues to make political hay from the fallout over the controversy.
Republican political consultant Grant Hewitt said Sandoval’s decision to support the driver’s authorization card measure and his support for English language learners funding will help him in the Hispanic community.
“He’s done a very good job of securing some real good issue positions to talk about going into the campaign season,” he said.
Sandoval’s strength as a candidate can be seen in the top Democratic candidates who have decided to take a pass on the race, Hewitt said.
“He’s done what he needs to do to ensure he’s there for another four years,” Hewitt said. “He set the bar at an achievable level and he achieved those objectives.”
LOST SOME, WON MOST
Sandoval outlined a number of priorities in his State of the State address in January, including more support for public education, which was approved, although not to the levels sought by Democratic leaders in the Legislature.
The payroll tax exemption was also expanded from the first $250,000 in wages a year to $340,000, exempting 2,700 more small businesses entirely from the levy.
But lawmakers declined to support his scholarship proposal to allow some students to attend private schools.
The Teach for America program bill, which also failed, would have provided $1 million a year to recruit 50 teachers for high-risk schools in Clark County. Facing a lack of support, Sandoval opted to put the $2 million into the Millennium Scholarship instead.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900.