Health care debate thrusts Sandoval into national spotlight

CARSON CITY — Brian Sandoval is having a good year.

Nevada’s Republican governor has seen his national profile grow in prominence, highlighted by his role influencing U.S. Sen. Dean Heller on the health care debate, and his new role as chairman of the National Governors Association.

Last month, Sandoval became part of the national conversation on health care when Heller, a Republican, declared he would not support a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

The announcement showed how influential Sandoval can be on a fellow Republican and propelled Nevada’s chief executive onto a bigger stage.

And, unlike some of his governor peers, Sandoval’s time in office has been scandal-free. No photographs on state beaches closed to the public like his New Jersey counterpart or stints in federal prison litter his résumé.

It’s enough to make his gubernatorial counterparts envious of his current stature and the prospects for his future once he leaves office in early 2019.

In a way, Sandoval’s rise in stature reflects the story of Nevada. The Silver State has morphed from a tawdry gambling mecca to a national player in politics, technology, data centers and transportation.

“The interesting thing about the governor’s national profile is he didn’t go looking for it,” said Pete Ernaut, an adviser and friend of Sandoval’s since 1982, when they met as students at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It kind of came and found him. And also, it’s almost entirely policy-based; whether it’s education reform, or whether it’s health care reform, it’s been driven by policy. I think both of those are very unique attributes to the governor. He doesn’t seek the limelight. He doesn’t lead with politics; he leads with policy.”

Sandoval is on a trade mission to South America and was unavailable to comment for this story.

National potential

Sandoval, a 53-year-old former federal judge, also has the respect of many of his peers in politics. This month, he became chairman of the governors association.

“I think people that get exposed to him on a national level are impressed,” said Sig Rogich, a former adviser to President George H.W. Bush. “He looks good. He sounds good. He’s got a clear trademark for integrity. I think he’s got a lot of potential nationally.”

Rogich noted that Bill Clinton was chairman of the governors association before becoming president, and said Sandoval could not only contend for the White House, but is also a “natural candidate for the Supreme Court and federal bench.”

“He’s young and he would sail through a confirmation, in my opinion, for Supreme Court of the United States,” Rogich said.

Sandoval has said he is unsure of what he will do after he exits the governor’s office in January 2019.

Mixed reviews

Sandoval has sparked the ire of some Republicans — including those who refer to him as a RINO (Republican In Name Only). But among Nevada voters, he continues to be liked. A recent Morning Consult poll listed Sandoval as the seventh-most popular governor in the country.

“There’s a lot of bad blood in the Republican Party toward Brian Sandoval,” said Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks.

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, R-Reno, however, points to Sandoval’s work to improve education and lead Nevada out of the Great Recession as key achievements since he took office in January 2011.

“We really have seen our economy diversify, and we’ve seen jobs and we’ve seen improvements in education,” she said.

Chuck Muth, former chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, ticks off the issues some more conservative Republicans have with Sandoval: support for the largest tax increase in Nevada history, the expansion of Medicaid and failure to preserve education savings accounts.

“Between those three things, I don’t think the man has a prayer for any kind of Republican future in any kind of primary contest,” Muth said.

The GOP-led Legislature passed the $1.1 billion tax package, but many Republicans blame Sandoval for the increase.

“He’s been a disaster and probably the worst thing that happened to the Republican Party,” Muth said.

Changing times

While former Sen. Harry Reid was once the national face of Nevada politics, other politicians from the Silver State have gained national prominence, said Michael Green, a professor of history at UNLV.

Gov. Grant Sawyer was mentioned as a possible vice president for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Paul Laxalt, a former Nevada governor and U.S. senator, was Ronald Reagan’s initial choice for a running mate in 1980. Reagan, from neighboring California, ultimately chose Bush, partly because Laxalt and Reagan were too similar in politics and region.

And then there was the stigma of being from a state with ties to gambling and other vices.

“Nevada was, in many ways, a pariah,” Green said. “Now, it’s a different matter.”

Could he win?

Hansen said the results in 2016, when Donald Trump knocked off a field of establishment candidates to win the GOP nomination and beat Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, show that Sandoval does not resonate with modern Republican voters.

“Brian Sandoval is completely out of sync with the Republican Party, not just the conservative element,” Hansen said.

Despite his popularity in the state and reputation as a moderate Republican, Sandoval is less likely to fire up the party base the way Donald Trump did.

“He is not a supplier of the kind of red meat the party bases like to munch on,” Green said.

Whatever the future holds for Sandoval, he will continue to make pragmatic decisions, said Greg Ferraro, a friend and close adviser.

“I think he looks at it not through a partisan lens or a political lens,” Ferraro said. “I think he looks at it through a realistic and practical lens.”

Contact Ben Botkin at or 775-461-0661. Follow @BenBotkin1 on Twitter.

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