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April 19, 2014

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ANALYSIS:

Gibbons positions himself as warrior against health care reform law

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Catherine Cortez Masto

Catherine Cortez Masto

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

New federal health care legislation seems to have breathed more life into Gov. Jim Gibbons’ re-election campaign.

After weeks of attacking the health insurance mandate in politically charged news releases, Gibbons announced Tuesday that Nevada will join 14 states in a lawsuit challenging the law — a move that will surely appeal to conservative voters in the contested Republican primary.

At a news conference in his Las Vegas office, Gibbons positioned himself as a constitutional warrior against what he described as the “Reid/Pelosi/Obama Nationalized Health Care Law,” taking up the matter by executive order over the objections of Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who rejected his request to sue.

Ironically, in doing so, he has set up his own constitutional showdown; Cortez Masto said Gibbons was overstepping his authority and is considering legal action against the governor.

The events carry a thick overlay of election-year politics, as the lawsuit is a rallying point for conservatives and the anti-establishment Tea Party movement animating the Republican primary here.

Indeed, Mark Hutchison, Gibbons’ special legal counsel, acknowledged Nevada would bring little more than its name to the lawsuit. The states are challenging the law on basic constitutional grounds, arguing that the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Barack Obama overstepped the bounds by requiring Americans to purchase health insurance.

Most of the states’ suits have been brought by Republican officials, some of whom are seeking higher office.

For his part, Gibbons denied the move had anything to do with politics.

“The Constitution is primary and supersedes any consideration of politics,” he said, adding the bill will cost Nevadans $2.4 billion in new federal and state taxes. “Whenever there is a violation of the Constitution, it cuts across political boundaries.”

Still, political observers said the move fits Gibbons’ strategy of using his office to bolster his conservative bona fides.

As David Damore, a UNLV political scientist, put it: “The last couple of months you’ve seen the resurrection of Jim Gibbons.”

Some background:

At the start of the campaign, the governor suffered from abysmal approval ratings, struggled to raise money and watched the political establishment forsake him for his chief rival, former federal Judge Brian Sandoval. His personal problems, including a messy divorce, dominated the headlines.

When Gibbons filed for re-election, he was asked how he would overcome his lack of money. “I will run hard, give lots of speeches and shake as many hands as I can,” he said.

And Gibbons busted out of the gates, using the bully pulpit to aggressively pursue what UNR political scientist Eric Herzik called a “conservative’s reform agenda,” including a call for school vouchers and the repeal of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

He then convened a special session of the Legislature to plug the state’s $800 million budget hole. After three years and two regular sessions in which he took a hands-off approach, he inserted himself into negotiations to facilitate a deal.

According to public opinion polling, voters are taking notice. Although he still trails Sandoval, Gibbons’ numbers are inching upward.

The lawsuit pre-empted Sandoval’s statewide TV ad buy, which debuts today, and, in an emerging pattern, forced the challenger to support the incumbent’s move. Considered by many to be the more moderate candidate, Sandoval first complained about the cost of the health care bill before echoing Gibbons’ call for a lawsuit.

Challenging the new health care legislation strengthens Gibbons’ connection to conservative voters who could decide the primary, Herzik said.

“That’s Gibbons’ base,” Herzik said of the Tea Party movement. “It makes perfect sense that he would pursue this. He gets to slap Cortez Masto along the way and he gets lots of free media. He couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.”

Gibbons attended a Tea Party rally in Searchlight last month, boasting that he had governed the state by the movement’s anti-tax principles and reined in government spending by cutting programs.

On Tuesday, Gibbons, flanked by his new legal team, reveled in the lawsuit, chiding both the Obama administration and Cortez Masto. It was a performance foreshadowed in seven news releases and media advisories about his opposition to the health care bill issued by his office in the two weeks and two days since it passed.

“I cannot sit idly by and entrust another state with the rights and obligations I have under my oath of office,” he said. “I feel the people of Nevada depend on the Constitution as inviolate, so if I’m going to protect their rights and that wonderful piece of American history called the Constitution, we have to do this. It is a must for the executive branch to undertake this litigation.”

Gibbons engaged in a bit of legislative taunting, suggesting that Congress should refashion a bill with only the “meritorious, nontrespassing” parts of the health care law, as determined by the states. He even downplayed the need for the new legislation, saying the last-resort safety net of the emergency room remained.

“There is no Nevadan that is denied health care today,” Gibbons said. “They can walk into any hospital and receive the needed treatment.”

Health care experts, however, point to the use of emergency rooms as a key culprit in rising costs. Moreover, Gibbons’ own state health inspectors recently verified that University Medical Center emergency room employees neglected to provide care to a pregnant woman who was in labor, which may have contributed to the death of her premature baby.

But political observers said Tuesday was all about the politics.

“This is a guy down in the polls who has had trouble raising money,” Damore said. “He is going to use the office in any way possible to appeal to the primary voters.”

Gibbons’ maneuvering could have an impact on donors, who had dismissed the governor a few months ago, Damore said.

Running to the right, while helpful in the primary, could alienate more centrist voters in the general election. Damore noted, however, that the early June 8 primary gives candidates a chance to recover.

“There is time to do a little dancing,” he said.

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