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July 28, 2014

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Five reasons Democrats can’t — or won’t — find someone to challenge Sandoval

Election after election, Democrats in Nevada have demonstrated they have the superior party apparatus.

Democrats can count the ways they have the upper hand in Nevada’s political landscape: 100,000 more registered voters than Republicans; a well-funded, professionally staffed party organization; and a proven turnout machine.

Oh, and Democrats have demographics on their side, too, as Nevada’s population has grown largely more Hispanic and more urban in the past decade.

So with all of that going for them, why haven’t Democrats been able to cough up a candidate to take on Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in next year’s top-of-the-ballot race?

“Brian Sandoval is popular. He’s got money. He’s won elections. This is not a race that any Democrat wants to enter,” UNR political scientist Eric Herzik said. “If I’m a Democrat, this is not the race for me.”

With the election still more than 15 months away, the possibility remains that a Democrat will get into the race. County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, for example, is actively considering a run.

But no other Democrat has stepped forward so far. He’s a look at five reasons that could be the case.

    • Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, right, speaks to a group of students and human services advocates outside the Legislature on Wednesday, May 18, 2011, in Carson City, Nev. The group has been camping outside the Legislature to show support for a Democrat tax package that would help ease cuts to state education.

      Sandoval is just too dang popular

      Sure, we can look at the multitude of factors that could keep the party’s top contenders out of the race for governor. But most political observers say it comes down to this simple reality: Sandoval is just too popular.

      “Sandoval, like it or not, is a juggernaut,” said one former Democratic operative.

      That’s not to say that he is unbeatable.

      Because of the structural factors playing in Democrats' favor, they could make a competitive race with any well-rounded candidate.

      Polling data indicate a head-to-head against a generic Democrat is a winnable race for the party. Put a candidate with name recognition such as Secretary of State Ross Miller or Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, and it becomes a barn-burner.

      That said, any politician with an approval rating in the high 50s and favorability rating into the 60s is difficult to beat. And Sandoval has managed to keep his constituents, the state’s political donors and most in his party happy.

    • New U.S. citizens Jenette Chavez, 18, and Josue Cano, 20, fill out voter registration forms in August at the Lloyd D. George federal courthouse in Las Vegas in 2008.

      Democrats fear taking on a Hispanic governor

      Democrats fancy themselves the party with the lock on Hispanic voters. And, so far, that’s true.

      Republicans tend to lose the Hispanic vote by a 70-30 margin.

      But what happens if Democrats are put in the position of working to defeat a Hispanic governor?

      “It’s a hard race to run because it’s delicate,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report. “You don’t want to look like you’re attacking a Hispanic office holder because there are so few of them and it doesn’t play well within your own base.”

      Duffy noted she is seeing a similar dynamic in New Mexico, where Democrats have been somewhat loath to take on Gov. Susanna Martinez.

      In Nevada, however, that may not be as big an issue. Although Sandoval is of Hispanic heritage, he hasn’t always played it up on the campaign trail.

      Sandoval also wasn’t exactly popular with Hispanic voters in 2010, losing the demographic by a 32-point margin.

    • Timing is everything

      To be successful in politics, candidates have to choose their timing carefully.

      Jumping the gun to enter a race can be just as costly as being too patient and missing your window.

      But when it comes to running for governor, taking on a popular incumbent who has his support locked up isn’t as attractive as waiting another four years.

      “Sandoval will be term limited and 2018 will be an open seat,” said one Democratic operative, who noted many on the Democratic bench are young. “It’s not like this is their last chance to go after something.”

      Of course, waiting for an open seat often means taking on a scrum from your own party. Open seats almost always draw primaries for both political parties.

    • Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller testifies at the Legislative Building in Carson City, Nev., on Thursday, March 14, 2013. Miller is urging lawmakers to support a bill that would update the state's polling books to include electronic voter photos. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

      Personal ambition (or lack thereof) trumps party pressure

      If Democratic operatives had their way, they’d run Secretary of State Ross Miller or Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto against Sandoval this year.

      Too bad for the operatives.

      Neither Miller nor Cortez Masto have indicated a willingness to jump into that race.

      Miller is known to have gubernatorial ambitions, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps one day. Bob Miller was Nevada’s longest serving governor.

      But Miller, 37 and a former prosecutor, has his eyes set on the attorney general’s office in 2014. A careful politician, Miller will likely time any run for governor when someone like Sandoval doesn’t already hold the office.

      Cortez Masto, so far, doesn’t appear to be running for anything in 2014. Those who know her say she isn’t enthralled by politics and likely won’t be convinced to run.

      Again, however, it’s still fairly early in the 2014 calendar.

    • No presidential or Senate race this year

      Although Democrats have the superior party apparatus and a favorable political landscape, 2014 is expected to favor Republicans.

      That generally happens in midterm elections: The party that doesn’t hold the presidency often outperforms the party that does.

      Sandoval will be topping the ticket in Nevada, which means his own campaign machine will be in operation.

      And with no presidential or Senate race in the offing, the Democrats' national apparatus won’t be at work in Nevada. Nor is there much for Democratic voters to be excited about at this point.

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