CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval announced Tuesday he will not run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, saying he wanted to give “undivided attention” to an economically recovering Nevada rather than seek new office in Washington.
With the governor putting himself on the sideline, Republicans turned to three-term Rep. Joe Heck, who promised a Senate decision “fairly soon — one way or the other.”
Sandoval’s decision was widely expected but still noteworthy in the jockeying to fill the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Harry Reid.
It deprived Republicans of their top choice and their most formidable candidate as they try to grab a Senate seat away from Democrats. But Sandoval, who won re-election as governor in a landslide last year, had sent signals in recent months that he might not be interested in a new job, and his announcement in a statement early Tuesday only made it official.
“In 1984, Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to serve as a legislative intern in his office in Washington, D.C.,” Sandoval said. “Coming from humble beginnings, the experience changed my life and charted me on a path of public service. It never occurred to me then that I would someday have an opportunity to be a candidate for the United States Senate.
“I have said many times that it is an honor and a privilege to serve as Nevada’s chief executive and that I love my job. My heart is in my responsibilities as governor and continuing to build the New Nevada. My undivided attention must be devoted to being the best governor, husband and father I can be.
“For these reasons, I will not seek the United States Senate seat that will be available in 2016,” Sandoval said.
HECK TO ANNOUNCE SOON
Attention immediately turned to Heck, who has been courted by party leaders assuming Sandoval would take a pass. At first uninterested, Heck more recently is said to be leaning in favor of a Senate campaign.
In an interview Tuesday, Heck did not set a timeline for an announcement but said he would decide in short order.
“It’s not fair to other people to keep things waiting, not that I’m holding up anybody else from getting in,” Heck said. “If we’re not going to get in we’re not going to get in. If we are, we are. I’m not going to drag this out.”
“Now that the governor has made his announcement, I’ll be able to sit down and have a realistic discussion with family and assess where we’re at,” he said. “Now it’s just seeing what the family wants to do.”
With Sandoval turning down the race, Heck said he was not feeling a weight to run. “I think we’ve got a good bench in Nevada,” he said. “I’m not feeling pressured to do it from that perspective.”
The focus on the three-term congressman from Henderson grew tighter, however, as another potential Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, took himself out of the running. Hutchison promised to support whoever wins the GOP nomination.
“Governor Sandoval’s extraordinary leadership and dedication to Nevada has been essential to our state’s recovery from serious economic challenges,” Hutchison said. “I would have been proud to support his candidacy and to see him become a United States senator representing Nevada’s interests in the nation’s Capitol. But I certainly understand his decision.”
National Republicans and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller had called on Sandoval to seek the seat that will have been held by Reid for the past 30 years. Reid is backing former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto as the Democratic nominee for the seat.
Heller said in a statement that he supported Sandoval’s decision.
“Under his leadership, our state’s economy continues to experience the Nevada comeback that we all know it is capable of achieving,” Heller said. “While Governor Sandoval’s voice and experience would have been a welcomed addition here on Capitol Hill, I join the entire Nevada family in wishing him success for the duration of his term in office.”
DEMS LAUD THEIR CANDIDATE
In Washington, a Democratic spokesman said Sandoval passing up the race increases the chances that the Nevada seat will remain in his party’s hands.
“We’re thrilled that we have a fantastic candidate in Catherine Cortez Masto running in Nevada and the GOP’s failure to land their top choice further complicates their ability to win a single Democratic seat this cycle,” said Justin Barasky, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Republicans have viewed Nevada and Colorado as top opportunities to pick up Senate seats in an election cycle where they otherwise are playing defense across most of the country. Republicans hold 24 out of the 34 seats being put before voters in 2016.
In Colorado, Republicans were sent back to the drawing board when their top choice, Rep. Mike Coffman, said last week he would not challenge incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet.
Talking with reporters Tuesday, Reid praised Sandoval and said he understood his decision not to run for Senate.
“Everyone knows I’ve been complimentary of Governor Sandoval,” Reid said. “I think he’s done a good job. He’s a young man. He has a very nice family and he feels that at this time he wants to devote his attention to being governor of the state of Nevada.”
Reid sidestepped whether Democrats might have an easier time holding onto the Senate seat without Sandoval as the Republican candidate.
“It doesn’t matter who runs against (Cortez Masto),” Reid said. “She’s going to be just fine.”
In an interview on June 1, the day after the Nevada legislative session, Sandoval reiterated previous comments that being governor was the greatest job he could hope for. Sandoval in November was re-elected to a second four-year term with 70.58 percent of the vote.
“I’m proud of what’s been accomplished and what we’ve done,” he said. Most recently, the just-concluded legislative session passed Sandoval’s signature tax measures and sweeping education reforms he said were crucial to position the state for a future in high tech.
Sandoval, a former federal judge, will be termed out of the governor’s office by 2018. His name has circulated for other top jobs, such as a Cabinet officer in a Republican presidential administration or even vice president if Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is elected.
With Reid’s surprise announcement in March not to seek another term, the open seat has drawn a lot of attention from Democrats and Republicans. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., recently announced she would not run for the seat but instead seek re-election.
Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers announced he would be a Republican candidate for Reid’s Senate seat and did so months ago, before Reid announced his retirement.
Contact Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801. Contact Review-Journal Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.