Friday, July 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
When the Sacramento Bee uncovered the practice of the state-run mental hospital in Las Vegas busing some of its discharged patients out of Nevada with little more than a bottle of Ensure, Nevada Democrats knew they had the kernel of a scandal to hang around the popular governor’s neck.
The news releases started almost immediately.
They only intensified as Gov. Brian Sandoval initially avoided questions about the practice as the Bee stepped up its coverage.
“The fact that it took weeks of devastating coverage in the media to force Gov. Sandoval to make this policy change shows just how morally bankrupt this administration is,” one news release blared in April.
Since then, the news releases haven’t stopped accusing Sandoval of reacting too slowly to the situation and stonewalling the press.
But as the well-liked governor heads into what is shaping up to be an easy re-election bid, some are wondering to what end the Democrats are ramping up their attack machine against Sandoval.
The party so far has been unable to put forward a solid candidate to run against Sandoval. So if Democrats aren’t attacking the governor in the hopes of installing their own candidates in Carson City, what’s the point?
“As much as you can soften him up and break his bank account, you want to do that,” one Democratic operative said.
In other words, the attacks against Sandoval aren’t so much geared toward winning the governor’s race, but keeping him busy defending himself so he can be less of an asset to down-ticket Republicans.
The Sandoval campaign appeared nonplussed.
“We haven’t really noticed any attacks,” Sandoval’s political consultant Mike Slanker said. “Not sure what they might be softening.”
Still, Slanker added, Sandoval isn’t about to simply coast through the 2014 election.
“The governor is fully committed to re-election and to fighting for wins up and down the ticket,” Slanker said. “He is fully engaged.”
The Democratic Party insists that the steady barrage of attacks on the patient busing practice is just the beginning of a sustained effort to drive up Sandoval’s negatives regardless of whether he draws an opponent.
And that’s not exactly an easy proposition. Even Democrats exhibit some awe of Sandoval’s ability to stay relentlessly on message, avoid major missteps and generally remain scandal free.
But Democrats see a few vulnerabilities. Most recently, Sandoval vetoed a bill that would have required private-party background checks, an issue that polls find is popular with Nevadans. The move likely won’t hurt him with Republicans, but could hurt him with key swing voters such as soccer moms, Democratic operatives posit.
Democrats also may turn to the first budget Sandoval put forward in 2011, when Nevada was still firmly in the grip of the recession. Sandoval had promised not to raise taxes or extend temporary taxes and put forward a budget that could have hamstrung the higher education system.
Sandoval finally backed down when a Nevada Supreme Court decision eliminated his ability to pad the state budget with local money and let the temporary taxes continue.
"Brian Sandoval will have to explain next year why the only things he has to show for his four years as governor are a patient dumping scandal, Nevada remaining dead last in education, and why we continue to lead the nation in unemployment and foreclosure rates,” Democrats’ spokesman Zach Hudson said. “Nevada's middle class is suffering under Brian Sandoval's leadership, and we will spend the next year and a half reminding voters how out of touch the governor is with Nevada families."
Republicans don’t seem too concerned with the effort, particularly because Democrats don’t have a candidate to deliver the attacks.
“I’ve never seen one of these efforts succeed. A party attacking a candidate without an alternative is a waste of money,” one Republican operative said. “You have to be a credible messenger to land a credible attack and make it stick. Parties are not a credible messenger.”
While the election is still 17 months away, time is short in political parlance. Typically, candidates begin preparing to launch a major campaign at least two years ahead of time.
That’s not to say, however, that it’s too late for Democrats to come up with a messenger.
Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak has long been open about his ambition to be governor. He has not yet formally announced, but is in the process of putting together a poll to assess his chances should he enter the race.
And that has many Democrats salivating.
Sisolak has never been shy of emptying the arsenal of negative attacks on a political opponent. And he has the fundraising chops and enough of his own wealth to at least put a tarnish on Sandoval’s shine.
But if Democrats hope Sisolak will get in the race simply to ensure Sandoval doesn’t have a free ride, they’ve got another hope coming.
“I am not getting into the race, as I have said before, to be a sacrificial-lamb type of candidate,” Sisolak told the Reno Gazette-Journal this month. “Unless I thought that there would be a path to victory, I wouldn’t be running. ... We will just have to wait and see.”