Published Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010 | 8:46 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010 | 2:12 a.m.
Brian Sandoval was a near-perfect candidate for governor. He had the resume, the message, the jaw line and hair that gave his candidacy an air of inevitability. He looked like a Hispanic Ronald Reagan, one Democrat griped.
With his transition from candidate to officeholder comes the hard part: He must govern during one of the most difficult periods in Nevada history, with state government facing record deficits. Complicating that task, he must balance the state budget with a campaign promise not to raise taxes hovering over him.
Sandoval was leading Rory Reid, the Democrat and Clark County commissioner, by over 10 points late Tuesday, including beating Reid in Clark County, which Reid had to carry to have a chance against Sandoval, who is from Reno.
Sandoval, a former federal judge, ran a disciplined, if cynical, campaign. He asked to be elected governor, while never addressing, except in broad outlines, the biggest issue confronting the state he will preside over.
He said only that he would roll back spending to 2007 levels and promised shared pain.
Experts project tax revenue will be $3 billion short of current spending levels when lawmakers journey to Carson City in February to begin reviewing the new governor’s budget.
Republicans appeared poised to gain one seat in the state Senate, with GOP candidate Michael Roberson defeating incumbent Sen. Joyce Woodhouse. That would make the Democratic majority in the upper house 11-10.
In the Assembly, Republicans appeared set to break Democrats’ hold on a two-thirds majority — the necessary number to increase taxes and override vetos — by defeating incumbent Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, D-Henderson, and taking over the Carson City seat vacated by retiring Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell.
Still, Democrats will control the Legislature.
But Sandoval’s greatest hurdle might be one he set for himself: Not only did Sandoval promise not to raise taxes and veto any budget that increases taxes, he promised not to extend $1 billion in taxes passed in 2009 that are scheduled to expire in June.
At the same time, he promised to preserve as many social services as possible and not offer a spending plan that lays off teachers.
Achieving each of those goals, according to nearly everyone who understands the state budgeting process, will be impossible. As a campaign strategy, though, it was effective.
Reid tried to be the “man with the plans,” releasing six, on education, job creation, the budget and other topics. The plans just gave Sandoval something to pick apart.
The fact that Sandoval was criticizing Reid’s plans without offering his own seemed lost on an electorate looking for a promise to protect their wallets and someone, perhaps, not named Reid.
Because Sandoval never offered a detailed budget plan, Reid was left to flail at the absence of a plan. Sandoval said there would be cuts, but never said what would get the ax — hence no constituency to anger or a target for Reid to focus on.
So despite spending $5.3 million to Sandoval’s $3.8 million, Reid’s campaign never caught hold.
Sandoval also struck a note of hope, with a slogan “A Reason to Believe Again” that resonated in a state leading the nation in unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcy.
But campaigning and governing “are totally different,” said Richard Bryan, the former U.S. senator and governor.
“Campaigns are frequently about rhetoric,” he said. “A governor’s job requires performance.”
Reid had the issue of his father, the unpopular U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. One of Rory Reid’s first ads for governor failed to mention his last name, to the amusement of Republicans and national media.
In focus groups and exit polls, voters rarely said they would punish the son for the father’s actions. But without a doubt, the downward effect of two Reids on the ballot was real.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said April Katsibubas, a Republican who voted for Sandoval on Tuesday at Bendorf Elementary School in Las Vegas. “When the kid, Rory 2010, doesn’t want to use his last name, what’s that say?”
Harry Reid’s name on the ballot might not have mattered had Rory Reid gotten the opponent he thought he was getting in 2008, when Sandoval was snugly tucked away with his lifetime appointment on the federal bench and a wounded Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons was seeking re-election. Against Gibbons, all of that could have been overcome.
But when Sandoval stepped down to run, the complexion of the race changed.
The Democratic Governors Association spent $1 million in the Republican primary to help Gibbons hold off Sandoval, but it failed to move polls. Emerging from the primary, Sandoval was the front-runner, and the race never appeared to be close.
Sandoval’s campaign played it very safe. He held few public events in the summer where he could be caught making a gaffe, and instead spent time raising contributions.
Sandoval had promised to release his budget plan repeatedly in the summer and fall, but never did.
In retrospect, this foot-dragging should not have been a surprise. As attorney general, he was known for his deliberative decision making, earning him the nickname “Bunker Brian” or “Snail-paced Sandoval.”
But now he switches from the empty promises of a campaign to the job of governing, where the state constitution sets the deadline for releasing a balanced budget.
He will have to present, and own, the plan he hands to the Legislature in January.
Bryan called the budget deficit “the greatest fiscal challenge in the state’s history. The numbers are staggering. It’s geometrically different from anything we faced before.”
Bryan said he didn’t believe it could be balanced without additional revenue.
Former Gov. Bob Miller, like Bryan a Democrat, agreed. Speaking Monday, he said, “Both candidates have made statements that make it more difficult to realistically address the budgetary issues. The next governor’s responsibility now is to ... come to grips with the fact he has to balance the budget, even if he made statements to the contrary.”
In the campaign, Sandoval did not focus on the doom and gloom of the budget. In his final TV campaign ad, he took some perfunctory swipes at his Democratic opponent, then faced the camera. “I’m optimistic,” he said.
What the cause of that optimism was, he never said.
Excerpt from Brian Sandoval's speech:
"Moments ago I had a conversation with my opponent, Commissioner Rory Reid. He was a tough opponent, a hard-charging opponent but somebody with class and dignity.
"We spoke of how important it is for Nevada to now come together. This is one state with one future, north and south, urban and rural, Republican, Democrat and independent. The Silver State has a history of coming together in difficult times and as we confront the challenges before us we can and must join forces to get Nevada working again.
"We're going to grow our small businesses. We're going to bring new employers to our state. We're going to improve education and the graduation rate in the state of Nevada. We're going to keep our taxes low and fundamentally change the way the state spends its money.
"I look forward to working with both parties in the Legislature.
"We all know that honest people can disagree but as Nevadans we can and will do what is best for you and the entire state. Finally, I'm extremely humbled by the voters' expression of confidence. You have my solemn vow that I will commit every moment to maintain your trust.
"While I am humbled I am also heartened by Nevadans' willingness to share the responsibility for what lies ahead. I talked about it during the course of this campaign ... how optimistic I am about the future of this great state. And together we can fight for a shared future and win, and win we will.
"Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Nevadans, the real work is just beginning. I need your help. Are you going to help me? I know that you will give that help and I know that we will succeed for this is our time. This is our moment. Nevada's best days are yet to come."