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July 24, 2014

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GOVERNOR’S RACE:

Can Brian Sandoval’s star keep rising?

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Leila Navidi

GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval speaks with volunteers and supporters earlier this year at the Bootlegger Bistro in Las Vegas.

Brian Sandoval

Gov. Jim Gibbons, center, answers questions with candidates Brian Sandoval, left, and Mike Montandon during the Republican gubernatorial debate in Reno on Friday, April 23, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Sandoval on Face to Face With Jon Ralston

Republican Coup? seg. 2

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  • Republican Coup? seg. 2
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  • Republican Coup? seg. 1
Gov. Jim Gibbons

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Michael Montandon

Michael Montandon

Rory Reid

Rory Reid

The label “rising Republican star” has been used so often to describe Brian Sandoval over the years that it seemed his name could scarcely appear in print without it.

It was first placed on him as a young assemblyman in 1996. And again when he left the Legislature to accept an appointment to the Gaming Commission.

It was repeated when, at 35, he was named the commission’s chairman — the youngest person to ever lead the powerful board overseeing Nevada’s largest industry.

Sandoval was still a rising star when he left the commission to run for attorney general, a race he easily won.

And once again when he left that post for the federal bench.

Despite more than a decade in public life, Sandoval was still a rising star when he left his lifetime appointment to the federal judiciary last year to run for governor.

The label fit. He had the resume, a reputation as a consensus builder who had worked with Democrats, good looks and a Hispanic surname that would appeal to Latino voters. Equally important, he had the support of powerful interests — some of the same interests that had facilitated his swift ascent.

When he announced his candidacy in September, Sandoval became the Republican establishment’s answer to its battered and deeply unpopular incumbent, Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Two of the state’s most powerful lobbyists, Pete Ernaut and Greg Ferraro, had convinced him to run, he said. Their involvement signaled he would benefit from the combined might and campaign contributions of gaming, mining and large businesses. Some of the party’s biggest names too, such as Senate Republican leader Bill Raggio and former Gov. Kenny Guinn, endorsed him.

The Governor’s Mansion was the next seemingly effortless step in a charmed career.

Yet in this political season, the interests that have helped fund and map out Sandoval’s campaign bring a sizable liability. Republican primary voters are angry, and the anti-tax right is ascendant. A backlash against the establishment that has aligned itself with Sandoval appears to be coalescing.

It poses perhaps the biggest challenge of Sandoval’s career: winning the Republican primary when a vocal segment of the party favors outsiders and the most conservative candidates.

•••

When Sandoval stepped down from the bench to run for governor, there was an expectation that the other Republicans in the race — Gibbons and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon — would drop out, clearing the path for a general election matchup with Rory Reid, the Democratic Clark County commissioner and son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The political winds were only beginning to shift then. In early interviews, Sandoval talked of himself as a consensus builder. He even acknowledged that as a lawmaker he had voted to allow local governments to raise taxes. He avoided taking shots at his opponents.

But time passed and neither Montandon — who acknowledges he received calls inviting him to drop out — nor Gibbons — who pursued re-election against the pleas of former supporters and donors — bowed out.

Throughout the campaign, Sandoval has cast himself as the fiscal conservative. But as it became obvious he would have primary challengers and as the Tea Party activists gained momentum, Sandoval emphasized his conservative positions.

He has promised not to raise taxes even though the state is projected to face a $2.5 billion to $3 billion shortfall. He has angered the Hispanic community by supporting Arizona’s tough new immigration law. And after initially complaining that the new federal health care law would be too costly, his message quickly hardened into a threat to sue to stop it.

Moderate Republicans have taken notice, many complaining that he’s trying to “out-Gibbons Gibbons.” Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at UNR, said he hears that complaint a lot. “He’s certainly taking more conservative-sounding positions than what he’s expressed in the past,” Herzik said, allowing that some of it is because he’s now running for the state’s top office.

All candidates pander to their base at some point or another. But some establishment Republicans have been surprised by Sandoval’s strident tone.

At the Tea Party Express rally in Searchlight this year to protest Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who recommended Sandoval for the federal bench, Sandoval walked onstage.

“How many of you want less taxes?” he said to cheers. “How many of you want less government? How many of you have respect for the Constitution of America?”

Then, “Go Tea Party! Go Nevada!” He walked off to cheers.

Sandoval has taken Gibbons seriously, even when few have.

Gibbons has used the megaphone of office to run an aggressive campaign and appeal to conservative voters. But he has no money and his attacks on Sandoval have been ineffective.

Given the weakness of the incumbent, some political observers wonder why Sandoval has felt the need to appeal to the conservative base. Although it may hold off Gibbons, it could also make things more difficult down the road.

“He’s giving credence to Gibbons,” said a senior lobbyist who supports Sandoval. “He’s putting himself in a box for the general election and hurting him governing.”

The surprise is fed by an almost universal belief among those who have served with Sandoval and watched him as a legislator and attorney general that he is a moderate — not just on issues such as domestic partnerships, which he supports, and his abortion rights stance, but on the third rail of Nevada Republican politics: taxes.

In 2003, legislators were at an impasse on a proposed $837 million tax package, and the session dragged on without passage of a state budget. Fifteen conservative assemblymen refused to vote for the tax increase, many arguing that it should be about $100 million smaller.

As the stalemate dragged on, Guinn filed a lawsuit against the Legislature to force lawmakers to balance the budget as required by the state constitution. While he took up the case as attorney general, Sandoval made it clear in testimony that he was not, in fact, telling lawmakers they had to raise taxes.

Still, if Sandoval disagreed with the policy behind the 2003 tax hike, he didn’t say so. In fact, he personally walked the lawsuit to the Legislature and Nevada Supreme Court just after midnight on July 1, as the new budget year began.

Raggio, a key player in the 2003 fight who supports Sandoval, shakes his head over the internal battles that have taken over the Republican Party — the no-tax pledges thrust before candidates, the positions that lessen the party’s appeal.

Raggio said it’s noteworthy that Sandoval hasn’t signed the pledge not to raise taxes, the only Republican not to do so.

“The first obligation of a governor, or a legislator, is to make darn sure essential and critical services are provided for,” he said. “It’s significant that he has not made himself into an impotent potential governor by signing a no-tax pledge. I’ve heard him say he doesn’t intend to raise taxes. I think everyone is saying that. Democrats are saying that. Republicans are saying that. I’m saying that.”

But Sandoval seems to have halted talk about taxes.

On Dawn Gibbons’ radio show in April, the Nevada first lady going through a divorce with the governor posed the most basic question to Sandoval.

Dawn Gibbons: “Is there any situation in which you would consider raising taxes?”

Sandoval: “No.”

Since then, he has reaffirmed that position. At a Reno debate, Sandoval said he “looks forward to saying goodbye” to the $1 billion in taxes that will sunset in 2011. And he explained that he didn’t need to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge because he didn’t support raising taxes.

•••

In an interview last week, Sandoval reflected on his career so far and perceptions about his swift rise and evolving positions.

His rise from an assemblyman, first elected in 1996, to attorney general and then federal judge might seem rapid from the outside, but to him it hasn’t been. All three of his political races — two for Assembly, one for attorney general — “have been incredibly challenging.”

“I take nothing for granted,” he said. “I always run hard. I always run scared.”

As for the impression many have that he is a moderate, he said, “People have their perceptions of me. I’ve always been a fiscal conservative.”

Sandoval pointed to a plan he offered to balance the budget during the special legislative session this year. He proposed cutting teacher and state worker salaries, raiding a Clark County School District building fund and cutting some programs.

He criticized the plan that Gibbons and lawmakers negotiated because it raised fees on some businesses.

Sandoval was asked, given that he has tried to stake out more conservative positions than Gibbons, why he would be any different from the current chief executive.

He responded by saying he would “be personally engaged in the Legislature, defending my budget,” unlike Gibbons, who has been criticized for not being engaged.

“That’s one of the differences between the two of us,” Sandoval said. “I’ve actively engaged as the attorney general. I’ve defended my budgets. When I was on the Gaming Commission, I testified before the Legislature. There’s a distinct difference.”

Sun reporter Michael J. Mishak contributed to this story.

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