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August 20, 2014

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Meet Brian Sandoval: Candidate for governor?

He’s announced only that he’s leaving the federal bench, but many observers expect him to take on Jim Gibbons

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Associated Press File Photo

Gov. Brian Sandoval has served on the federal bench as well as being a state assemblyman, gaming commissioner and state attorney general.

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Rep. Jon Porter, from left, Gov. Kenny Guinn and Attorney General Brian Sandoval chant "four more years" at Mandalay Bay after announcing on Election Night 2004 that George Bush won Nevada. Sandoval was chairman of the Bush-Cheney Nevada Leadership Team.

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Porter and Sandoval leave the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington in 2004 after a proceeding concerning the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Sandoval left the state attorney general's post in 2005 to become a judge.

When Brian Sandoval announced this month that he was resigning from the federal bench, the complexion of next year’s race for governor changed instantly.

Republican leaders buzzed excitedly, some declaring the 45-year-old former assemblyman, gaming commissioner and attorney general to be the future of Nevada’s GOP. A few Democrats privately acknowledged he would be a likeable, articulate and formidable opponent.

All that reaction came without his granting an interview or formally announcing that he is running.

Those close to him say that until Sandoval’s resignation is effective, on Sept. 15, he is prohibited by judicial canons from speaking publicly about running for political office.

When he does start talking about his decision to resign after nearly four years on the U.S. District Court bench in Reno, the first question he’ll likely encounter is this: Why give up a prestigious, lifetime appointment paying $174,000 a year to beg voters for a job that pays $33,000 less and will involve leading a state with a looming $2 billion dollar deficit and a host of other troubles?

The speculation ranges on how Sandoval would answer that question. Some say he was bored by the federal bench. Others hint that it’s his prominent competitive streak, which dates to his days playing high school basketball in Reno. Still others say he sees his state struggling and wants to take an active role in turning it around.

One thing is clear though, Sandoval’s decision to resign from the federal bench to seek office is exceedingly rare — unprecedented even, in Nevada.

Historian Guy Rocha said the closest a federal judge in the state has come to leaving for elected office was in 1902, when a sitting federal judge unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate but did not resign his seat. Nationally, since 1795 only 19 judges have left the federal judiciary, from district court to the U.S. Supreme Court, to run for office. The most recent made an unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1970, according to Malia Reddick, director of research and programs for the American Judicature Society.

Some of his likely opponents have wasted no time welcoming Sandoval to the race.

Former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon, a Republican, sent a fundraising letter in which he called him a “quitter.” He also claimed that Sandoval’s leaving office as attorney general for the federal judgeship had helped advance “liberalism” by allowing Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto to win the office of attorney general in 2006 and providing President Barack Obama the opportunity to nominate a replacement judge now.

In an interview, Montandon said, “I don’t know him very well. All I know is every time I turn around, he’s quitting one job to take another.”

Sandoval served two terms in the Legislature, 1994-1998. He left after Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat, appointed him to the Nevada Gaming Commission. In 2001 he left the commission to run for attorney general, becoming the first Hispanic to hold statewide office. In 2005 he resigned to become a federal judge.

He was a strong candidate in his political races and considered, by some, a possible future challenger to Sen. Harry Reid. It was Reid, with the support of Sen. John Ensign, who recommended Sandoval’s name to the White House for the judgeship.

At the time, Democrats appeared pleased to have him off the political playing field.

Then-Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said: “I think he would excel in the position. He is bright, he is thoughtful and he is even-tempered.”

In a statement, Reid said, “Brian has the qualities I always hoped for in a judge when I was a trial lawyer — a commitment to fairness and rule of law.”

But if he’s running, Sandoval will enter an unsettled field seeking the governor’s office.

By reputation he is a moderate at a time when the more conservative elements of the state Republican Party are asserting themselves. He will also face a crowded primary. Gov. Jim Gibbons is running for reelection despite dismal approval ratings. And in addition to Montandon, former state Sen. Joe Heck has announced his candidacy. On the Democratic side, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid expects to have $3 million for his run by the end of the month, though his polling numbers are sagging. Assembly Speaker Buckley is also a potential candidate.

Republicans are still licking their wounds from 2008, when Democrats used a growing voter registration advantage to swing the state for President Obama, secure a veto-proof majority in the Assembly and gain control of the state Senate. The Republican Party, as a political machine, appeared weak and rudderless.

Ensign had planned to spearhead rebuilding the party, but that was before he revealed he had had an affair with a woman who was then a campaign staff member.

Political strategists from both parties say it appears unlikely that Republicans will regain control of the state Senate or make significant gains in the Assembly next year. That would leave the governor’s office as the party’s beachhead against Democrats.

“Given the majorities that exist in the Assembly and Senate, it’s important that we have a Republican governor to balance it out,” said Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno.

Republicans, of course, hold the Governor’s Mansion, but if there’s a political observer out there who believes Gibbons can win a general election, he isn’t advertising it.

Even though Sandoval hasn’t announced his candidacy, many supporters are declaring him the party’s best hope, particularly after U.S. Rep. Dean Heller decided to seek reelection instead of challenging Sen. Harry Reid or running for governor.

Gansert, a high school classmate who was student body vice-president when Sandoval was student body president, said Republicans “need to reunite, reignite the party. I believe Brian may be the person who helps us do it.”

Ensign called Sandoval “one of the future leaders of the Republican Party.”

Greg Ferraro, an influential Republican lobbyist who grew up with Sandoval, said he is disciplined, cares about solving problems and works well with the other side. “There’s a lot of crossover appeal. Quite frankly, these types of candidates don’t come along that often,” he said.

Robert Uithoven, a Republican political consultant unaffiliated with any campaign, said although Sandoval has strong appeal among the political class — particularly potential donors — he should be careful not to put himself out there as the inevitable nominee.

“The most important thing for Brian Sandoval is not to project that he’s entitled to the position, entitled to people’s vote,” Uithoven said. “No matter what any pundit says, what any elite member of the party says, he has to earn the votes.”

Indeed, the early buzz in Republican circles has brought a backlash from at least one other Republican candidate.

Montandon, in an interview, said he has received calls from Sandoval supporters suggesting he get out of the race.

“They wanted to let me know that I’m welcome to back out any time I’d like,” Montandon said. “The folks looking at anointing Sandoval are going through the standard anointment process. ... I’m running for governor. I’ve got the qualifications and infrastructure to do this.”

Sun librarian Rebecca Clifford-Cruz contributed to this story.

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