RENO — Some supporters of Gov. Jim Gibbons said they’re concerned about the potential political fallout of his decision to seek a divorce from his wife of 22 years midway through his first term.
Gibbons, who has said he plans to seek re-election in 2010, cited incompatibility in filing for the divorce from Dawn Gibbons on May 2. He also filed a legal petition to remove the first lady from the Governor’s Mansion, where she’s been living since he left to stay in Reno earlier this year.
“It has gotten to the point that some folks close to Gibbons and firm supporters are starting to wonder: Is he going to run for a second term?” said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist and Gibbons supporter. “A seed of doubt is starting to creep up in their minds that maybe they better start considering the possibility and find somebody else.”
Others said a bitter, drawn-out divorce could undermine the Republican governor’s support.
“If the divorce reveals personal trust issues of significant proportions, it will not help him,” Republican strategist Ryan Erwin of Las Vegas told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The divorce case is the latest in a series of difficulties for the governor, including a pending corruption investigation by the FBI and claims by a Las Vegas cocktail waitress that he assaulted her in a parking garage after she rebuffed his advances just before his 2006 election.
Police last year said they found insufficient evidence to support the waitress’ claim. But during the furor, Dawn Gibbons stood by her husband and resolutely defended him, lending critical support at a perilous moment in his career.
Many of Gibbons’ supporters think he still can revive his administration in the remaining years of his term.
“The divorce and some of the other things present challenges, but I believe his re-electability is going to be more defined by how he handles the budget crisis and the dire issues facing the 2009 Legislature,” said Pete Ernaut, a Republican consultant and former chief of staff to Gibbons’ predecessor, Kenny Guinn.
Muth said the governor’s no-new-taxes pledge has kept him popular with his base.
“I think the tax pledge is the only thing keeping a lot of people on the reservation with him,” Muth told the Gazette-Journal. “They can look past the divorce … and other stuff, but if he breaks the tax pledge, that’s just the cardinal sin.”
While he hasn’t counted Gibbons out for a second term, Erwin said the governor is going to have to do more than stand the line on taxes to revive his administration.
“The lifeline may keep him from drowning, but he’s not going to be able to win a race on that,” Erwin said. “He’s got to be able to hang his hat on some real accomplishments.”
More than a half dozen sitting governors have ended their marriages in recent decades, with varying implications for their political futures.