A dozen years ago, Gov. Kenny Guinn won re-election in a landslide against then-state Sen. Joe Neal, the first black man to win the Democratic nomination in Nevada.
But Neal never stood a chance. He lost handily to the popular Republican incumbent, receiving just 22 percent of the vote.
This year’s election appears headed in the same direction. One political analyst even predicts Democrats will have their worst gubernatorial showing in more than a century.
Popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is skating toward his own landslide victory come Nov. 4 as the Democratic Party so far has failed to recruit a top-tier candidate, essentially ceding the top state race.
“I don’t know that ‘giving up’ would be the right term,” said state Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, who has been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial hopeful, though she says she will seek re-election to the Senate instead. “It may just be one of those odd years. Having people run just to run doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Last week, Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, decided not to challenge Sandoval, leaving two little-known Democrats in the race, casino worker Chris Hyepock and college professor Frederick Conquest.
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, could change his mind and jump into the gubernatorial race, but it’s unlikely without encouragement from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has run the party with an iron fist for a decade.
“I have reached my level of competency as a senator,” Segerblom cracked when asked whether he would run. “It looks like the focus will be on down-ticket races.”
Reid told reporters last week he isn’t giving up, although candidate filing opens March 3.
“I think it will be a respectable Democrat and someone that people know,” Reid told reporters in Carson City, adding, he’s “still working on it.”
Reid is running out of options.
DESPERATELY SEEKING SOMEONE
Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, a Latina Democrat who could be a fierce challenger, decided last year she didn’t want to run against Sandoval. She’s termed out, but expects to take a break from politics, perhaps returning to run for governor or U.S. senator in 2018.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., will be up for re-election in 2018; and the gubernatorial race should be wide open if Sandoval completes his second and final term.
Secretary of State Ross Miller, another top-tier Democrat, is running for attorney general this year as he hopes to one day follow in the footsteps of his father, former Gov. Bob Miller, who ran the state for a record 10 years.
Miller’s Republican opponent is Adam Laxalt, whose grandfather is Paul Laxalt, a Nevada GOP icon who served as governor and U.S. senator.
State Treasurer Kate Marshall is running for secretary of state against state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas.
After Marshall, the list of potential Democrats who might give Sandoval a run for his money ($3 million raised for his campaign last year alone) drops off fast.
State senators lack statewide campaign experience, but some have been mentioned as potential contenders, including Smith and Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas. But both Smith and Kihuen — a Hispanic who ran briefly for Congress with Reid’s backing in 2012 — are running for re-election this year.
The rumor mill was humming last week, including the notion that Suzie Lee, the wife of Palms hotel-casino President Dan Lee, might run. A Democrat, she flirted with running for lieutenant governor but didn’t for family reasons, she said.
“I’m definitely not running for governor,” Lee said. “Nobody has talked to me about running.”
Hyepock, meanwhile, said he’s trying to meet Reid to convince the senator he has a shot at surprising Sandoval, and everyone else.
“I called him this morning and said I definitely want to meet with him pronto,” Hyepock said Wednesday, the day after Reid pledged to find a credible candidate. “We’ll see if he calls. If he actually sat down with me, I can explain to him why I can make an upset in this election. Brian Sandoval is not going to get beat by the same old politicians.”
TAKING A PASS
A Democratic Party leader said it’s possible the party won’t put up a top-tier candidate for governor, focusing instead on competitive contests for lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and the 3rd Congressional District. Democrats also want to keep control of the state Senate, which could flip if Republicans pick up one seat.
“Unless we have a strong challenger to Sandoval … it may be better to not have anyone,” said the Democrat. “… He can’t use the opponent to raise additional money for himself that he can pass around for other candidates.”
Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime public relations guru and political consultant, agreed it might be better for Democrats to use resources for competitive races instead of a futile attempt to defeat a juggernaut.
“You don’t just blow somebody in a race that’s hard to win,” Vassiliadis said. “You’ve got to play long ball.”
Vassiliadis said he thinks Cortez Masto, Miller or Marshall could have been competitive but that Sandoval would be tough to beat.
“Does the party want to put that rough a road in front of a candidate or focus all its efforts on the rest of the ticket?” Vassiliadis asked. “I’ve not heard of any other candidate,” with Sisolak and Segerblom out of the picture.
Vassiliadis said Nevada history is full of examples of incumbents smashing the competition.
Take Guinn’s 2002 landslide, for example. Neal first angered the gaming industry by pushing for higher taxes on casinos, then took on a giant practically on his own, with little to no party support.
During the primary Neal raised no money while Guinn took in $1.3 million and collected pledges for another $1 million for the general election.
Neal saw himself as running against the gaming establishment, which has anointed one governor after another over the years, including Guinn and Sandoval.
“One of the things that needs to be done is to try to keep the two-party system intact,” Neal said at the time when asked why he was running. “Gaming has created a virtual one-party system in this state. I’m here as the standard bearer to keep the two-party system intact and increase the value of democracy in this state.”
David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, agreed with Neal’s assessment.
“There is still only one real party in Nevada and that is the Establishment Party,” Damore said.
Sisolak, for example, said the governor already had tapped many of the commissioner’s own previous financial supporters, including those in gaming.
Damore said it’s embarrassing that Democrats can’t field a strong candidate, especially since the party is more organized than Republicans in Nevada, thanks to Reid. (In 2010, Reid’s son, Rory, lost badly to Sandoval, 53.4 percent to 41.6 percent, but the elder senator was focused on winning his own re-election.)
“This does make the inability to recruit a candidate even more of an eyesore given how much attention the ‘Democrats rising in Nevada’ narrative has received in the last few cycles,” Damore said. “Unless some self-funder on a vanity trip throws his or her hat in the race, Sandoval will get a pass.”
While Sandoval is running strong, Damore notes that his popularity doesn’t mean a lock for other Republicans. Nevada is still a swing state, he notes, where a strong candidate from either party can win.
Indeed, Republicans have fielded plenty of weak candidates against strong incumbent Democratic governors, too.
Republican Shirley Crumpler, the first woman to win a major party primary in Nevada, lost badly to popular Democratic Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who won re-election in 1974 with 67 percent of the vote to her 17 percent.
And former Nevada Treasurer Patty Cafferata, a Republican, lost to Democratic Gov. Richard Bryan when he ran for re-election in 1986 with 71 percent of the vote to her 25 percent. Two years later, Bryan was elected to the U.S. Senate.
“If a governor is popular, it’s not going to be competitive,” Cafferata said. “We’re still a small state. Everybody knows everybody, and that includes the governor. If you have a good relationship with the governor, you want to keep him.”
Cafferata said she was encouraged to run “by quite a few of the Good Old Boys, and as soon as I filed they disappeared.” Promised campaign contributions didn’t come through. The press called her a sacrificial lamb.
“They just wanted somebody to run against the very popular Dick Bryan because that would be a big distraction,” Cafferata said. “But they don’t really have to address you. They just ignored you.”
Cafferata suggested if the Democratic Party does come up with a candidate against Sandoval, “it would be somebody very token.”
Eric Ostemeier, writing for Smart Politics, reviewed Nevada history after Sisolak bowed out. He said Democrats are “flirting with the poorest Nevada gubernatorial showing since the 1800s.”
“Across the 39 election cycles since statehood, only four Democratic nominees have failed to win 40 percent of the vote — and just two of 29 nominees since the 1900s,” Ostemeier wrote, referring to 1894, 1898, 1978 and 2002.
“By contrast, Republican gubernatorial nominees have not reached the 40 percent mark in 11 cycles since statehood, or in nearly 30 percent of all such races: 1894, 1898, 1906, 1914, 1934, 1938, 1942, 1962, 1974, 1986, and 1990,” he said.
Ostemeier found that Nevada governors’ races often aren’t competitive. Over the past 10 election cycles, for example, Nevada gubernatorial races have had the fourth-largest victory margins in the nation at 24.3 points, he said. Only Utah, Delaware and Louisiana “rank lower on this blow-out scale.”
Ostemeier, like many analysts, sees a Sandoval landslide coming.
“The seemingly inevitable blow-out that will take place in Nevada this fall will continue the state’s reputation of serving up some of the least-competitive gubernatorial races across the country in recent decades,” he wrote.
Zach Hudson, the Nevada Democratic Party spokesman, seemed undeterred by the odds.
“November is a long time away, and Brian Sandoval will have to explain why the only thing he has to show for his four years as governor is high unemployment and crippling cuts to education,” Hudson said, although the unemployment rate has dropped several points during the governor’s first term. “We look forward to electing Democrats up and down the ballot this November who will focus on creating jobs and strengthening the middle class.”
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj