Even without a challenger, Sandoval still faces a primary test

Mark Hutchison’s first television ad promoting his GOP campaign for lieutenant governor shows him walking beside Gov. Brian Sandoval in Carson City.

The stroll takes up nearly a third of the 30-second commercial, which promotes Hutchison as a “committed conservative” whom Sandoval asked to represent Nevada in its lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, which he did — for free.

When early voting opened May 24, Sandoval emailed his own supporters reminding them to vote, both for him and for Hutchison as his trusted lieutenant.

“I need a strong team to continue our economic comeback,” Sandoval wrote. “I hope that you’ll consider voting for Mark Hutchison to be our next Lt. Governor. Having Mark, along with our great Republican Assembly and Senate members, during the next legislative session will ensure we are able to build on our successes.”

Hutchison’s campaign is in many ways a referendum on Sandoval’s leader­ship, as the governor faces no serious GOP or Democratic Party opposition to re-election this year.

As the June 10 primary election day approaches, Sandoval’s coattails will be tested. Will his popularity and full embrace of Hutchison, a state senator, be enough to defeat Hutchison’s Republican opponent Sue Lowden? She’s better-known, but doesn’t have Hutchison’s money or support from the GOP establishment.


Sandoval’s endorsement may be a benefit, but it may also come with baggage that is hard to weigh.

Conservatives upset that Sandoval twice extended a $620 million package of taxes might spurn Hutchison. But Republicans who see Nevada’s economy bouncing back on Sandoval’s watch might want to back his No. 2 pick.

“At the end of the day, people may say neither candidate is great, but this is the one the governor wants,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV, adding that both candidates have been wounded by a largely negative campaign. “The establishment may pick Hutchison, saying we really want to win the race in Nevada.”

Whoever wins the GOP primary will likely face Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, in the Nov. 4 general election. Flores has the support of the Democratic Party and of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Flores, a two-term assemblywoman, grew up in North Las Vegas and is not widely known beyond Southern Nevada or political circles such as the Hispanic activists backing her. She is seen as the underdog in the statewide lieutenant governor’s race, regardless of who wins the GOP nod.

Still, Sandoval’s coattails will again be tested in the November general election if the bitter, boisterous primary battle leaves scars the Democratic Party can exploit.

Hutchison’s main attack against Lowden has been her $600,000 debt left from her failed 2010 U.S. Senate campaign. She said she’s waiting for the Federal Election Commission to sign off on a payment plan that would give vendors about 45 cents on the dollar.

Hutchison’s campaign also has noted Lowden has donated to Democrats in the past, including about $5,000 to Reid. Lowden said the Senate majority leader used to be a lot less liberal two dozen years ago, when she gave him money.

Lowden’s main attack on Hutchison involves turning the tables on Sandoval’s implementation of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Once the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional, Sandoval decided to have Nevada implement it through the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange instead of relying on the federal government. Sandoval also became the first GOP governor to take the option of expanding Medicaid.

In the Nevada Legislature, Hutchison backed Sandoval’s plan, voting for three separate measures to implement the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicaid — votes Lowden argues shows Hutchison’s not really conservative.

Sandoval himself became an issue in the Republicans’ final debate May 12, with Lowden accusing Hutchison of using Sandoval “as a crutch.”

Hutchison countered by asking Lowden why she keeps criticizing the governor, especially on the health care law.

“She wants to be his partner, and she’s insistently criticizing him,” Hutchison declared.

Lowden attacks Hutchison, not Sandoval by name. That would be dicey, considering that polls show the governor gets job approval ratings as high as 60 percent in voter surveys.

Sometimes when a candidate is as popular as Sandoval, “he can bring other members of his party running down-ballot across the finish line,” said Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report.

But in 2014, it’s unclear how long Sandoval’s coattails will be. Voter turnout is expected to be low, partly because there’s no competitive gubernatorial race or U.S. Senate race.

“The challenge in Nevada is that Sandoval is popular, but he has just token opposition,” Duffy said. “It would help Republicans down-ballot more if Sandoval at least had to break a sweat.”

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to try “the alternative strategy: closely linking a candidate to Sandoval,” she said.

“Republicans need to make the race a referendum on Sandoval,” Duffy said. “This is what they are trying to do in the primary. This makes the general interesting: does it become a Sandoval/Reid proxy fight?”

Indeed, most of the interest in the part-time lieutenant governor’s job stems from speculation that Sandoval may not complete his second, four-year term, allowing the lieutenant governor to waltz into the job. Sandoval has said he plans to stick it out. However, political handicappers note that his options include challenging Reid in 2016, returning to the federal bench or joining the Cabinet if a Republican wins the presidency.

Reid, who assisted in Sandoval’s judicial appointment during the Bush administration, is lending Flores his political team. If she wins the lieutenant governor’s job, it could quash any Sandoval plans to move on early, leaving the governor’s office in Democratic hands — something he’s highly unlikely to do.

Damore noted that all Sandoval has to offer Hutchison is financial help and his coattails since he has not taken the reins of the Nevada Republican Party as Reid has done with the Nevada Democratic Party. The state GOP, which is dominated by conservatives, endorsed Lowden over Hutchison after he and Sandoval both boycotted the party’s endorsement process. Yet, the state GOP also endorsed Sandoval, suggesting he hasn’t lost too much support.

Sandoval also was unable to block Lowden from launching a primary against his chosen candidate, Hutchison. On the Democratic side, Reid is the behind-the-scenes arbiter of who can and cannot run for various offices, often heading off divisive primary fights.

“Sandoval, as popular as he is, hasn’t done what Reid did, which is build a strong party organization,” Damore said.

So, will the governor’s coattails result in a Hutchison victory?

No, if a largely conservative primary electorate rejects him because of dis­appointment with Sandoval, Damore said. Yes, if what counts is a stronger and better-financed campaign organization, which Hutchison has.

Hutchison has spent at least $920,000 so far this year — partly to raise his name ID, but also on ads slapping Lowden for her 2010 campaign debt. In comparison, Lowden spent $249,000 as of late May.

In the end, the only sure winner of the heated GOP primary is Flores, the Democrat.

“She gets to sit back and raise money and wait for the general campaign,” Damore said, while Hutchison and Lowden get weighed down by loads of negative “baggage” they’ll be carrying after the June 10 primary.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.

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