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October 25, 2014

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Lieutenant governor’s race has legs in 2016 national politics

What does the lieutenant governor do?

The traditional role of the office had been leading the state’s economic development and tourism efforts, but the Legislature changed that in 2011, creating the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

The lieutenant governor still sits on the board of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and chairs the state’s Commission on Tourism, but his or her main duty is acting as president of the state Senate. During the Legislature, the lieutenant governor runs floor sessions and takes the rare tie-breaking vote.

“The lieutenant governor has basically been reduced to a cheerleader,” said Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director at Nevada Policy Research Institute.

The position pays $64,000 a year.

But this year, the political importance of the job is rising as speculation grows that in 2016, Gov. Brian Sandoval may leave his office in the hands of the person who wins this year’s lieutenant governor’s race to pursue a U.S. Senate run.

EXPERT THOUGHT

The lieutenant governor’s race has voters’ attention for one reason, said David Damore, assistant professor of political science at UNLV. “There’s no governor’s race this year,” he said.

GET INVOLVED

Hutchison and Lowden will debate Monday on “Nevada Newsmakers.” The debate will be aired on KSNV-TV Channel 3 on Tuesday. To register to vote in the race, visit http://nvsos.gov. Online or in-person registration is due by May 20..

The statewide race that seems to be gathering the greatest attention among political power brokers is for the position that carries the least power: lieutenant governor.

The primary election June 10 is a proxy battle between the state’s two most influential politicians — Democrat Sen. Harry Reid and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval — and the zeal of the far right.

This race normally wouldn’t catch voters’ eyes, but this campaign could define Nevada’s political landscape for 2016 and beyond. That’s because a Republican win could open the door for a well-funded, popular Sandoval to challenge Reid as the party continues its campaign to control the Senate.

But first, Sandoval will coast to re-election this year. He had such a strong first term that Reid and the Democrats couldn’t even find a viable challenger. Second, Sandoval’s pick must win the lieutenant governor’s race. The campaign’s three leading candidates are as diverse as they are inexperienced.

The Democrat is a former gang member. The Tea Party candidate is an ex-beauty queen. And the moderate Republican is an Eagle Scout. The three served a combined four sessions in the Nevada Legislature.

Lucy Flores, a young Hispanic lawyer, won the endorsement of Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader who hand picks all Democratic candidates in major races. She will breeze to a primary win.

In November’s general election, Flores will face either Sue Lowden or Mark Hutchison.

Lowden is a former Miss America contestant-turned-TV news anchor who left journalism to be a politician. She and her husband, Paul Lowden, became millionaires through their hotel business. Lowden served one term in the state Senate but is best remembered for her unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign against Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle.

This time around, Lowden has moved to the right to become the Tea Party candidate. That has helped her win endorsements from the Nevada Republican Party and the Carson City Republican Party.

Hutchison is the favorite of the Republican establishment in Nevada. Sandoval’s support is so strong, he assigned his own campaign team to help Hutchison. While Hutchison hasn’t served a full term in the state Senate, he has won endorsements from Republicans Mitt Romney, Rep. Joe Heck and Sen. Dean Heller.

The governor heralds Hutchison for working pro-bono on a lawsuit to fight Obamacare, even though the case failed in the courts. He’s the Eagle Scout whose coiffed hair and bright smile mirror the Teflon and swagger that’s made Sandoval so likable to voters.

REPUBLICAN BASH

The fight for the Republican primary has been bitter.

Lowden and Hutchison have split hairs in televised debates, bought mudslinging campaign ads and fired off snappy press releases.

Lowden’s failed Senate bid brings name recognition Hutchison doesn’t have. But it also makes her a target.

Lowden owes $600,000 to consultants from her 2010 campaign. She lost one lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court and is in the middle of another. Lowden said she has a payment plan that’s awaiting approval from federal regulators.

“She should explain why it’s OK to write a personal check for $100,000 to her new campaign without first paying the debts of the last one,” Hutchison said in an April 29 statement.

Lowden also has gone on the offensive.

Her attacks are familiar talking points for Tea Party candidates challenging moderate Republicans in races across the country.

She said Hutchison voted for 55 tax and fee increases in the 2013 legislative session. Hutchison points out that some fee increases were for a good cause. He supported higher penalties for drunken driving, Medicaid and welfare fraud.

In particular, Lowden points to Hutchison’s support to put a new mining tax on the ballot and extend a $633 million tax package. She’s also assailing his votes to expand Medicaid because it contradicts his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

She also called out Hutchison’s campaign contributions from anti-gun groups and is quick to fire off her support for the Second Amendment.

To prove her point, Lowden took a break from her breakfast at Mimi’s in Summerlin to mention her concealed carry permit. Then she motioned her head toward her purse, suggesting she was armed.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “we’re safe here.”

THE QUIET CANDIDATE

While the Republicans spend their time digging up dirt on each other, Flores is free to focus on her key issues: education and poverty.

On one tax measure, Flores finds herself walking a tightrope between education and the economy. The margins tax would be a 2 percent levy on businesses with $1 million or more in gross revenue. The money raised, about $700 million, is targeted for education.

But Flores recently came out against the measure. She prefers to restructure the state’s tax system rather than add new taxes.

Flores may have an easy primary, but the general election will be different.

Nationwide, voter turnout among Democrats typically drops in midterm elections, and Republican turnout typically is more stable. In Nevada, that means a swing county like Washoe could decide the race by a small margin.

Flores will use her life story to motivate her base — young people, women and minorities — to show up at the polls.

Her mother abandoned her and her 12 brothers and sisters. Her dad worked multiple jobs and wasn’t home much. Flores turned to gangs. Police eventually arrested her for stealing a car. That experience helped turn her life around. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a law degree from UNLV.

Flores, looking ahead to the general election, channels the national party message that Republicans are out of touch with the middle class. A Nevada Democratic Party official pointed out that Lowden owns a vacation home and rental property and Hutchison owns two vacation homes and six rental properties.

“I would say the vast majority of people, regardless of political affiliation, feel that they can identify in some way with me,” Flores said. “We’ve all experienced challenge in one form or another.”

    • The race that could redefine Nevada politics for years to come

      The race for lieutenant governor is normally a snoozer. This year, it’s the most-watched campaign on the ballot. Why? It’s all about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. Reid is up for re-election in 2016 and says he will run. Sandoval, a rising star who would likely be showered with national support from the Republican Party, hasn’t said whether he’ll run. His answer may depend on who wins this race.

    • Lucy Flores

      Party: Democrat

      Job: Attorney, assemblywoman District 28

      Age: 34

      Residence: Las Vegas

      Family: Single

      Key endorsements: Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democratic Party

      Campaign finances: $73,154.57

      Flores will breeze through the primary into the general election. She faces one other candidate — Harley Kulkin, the Pahrump town board chairman, but he isn’t running a serious campaign. (Example: He appears to not have a website.)

    • Mark Hutchison

      Party: Establishment Republicans

      Job: Attorney, state senator District 6

      Age: 51

      Residence: Las Vegas

      Family: Married, six children

      Key endorsements: Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sen. Dean Heller, Mitt Romney

      Campaign finances: $869,362.50

      Hutchison is Sandoval’s hand-picked candidate and his connections give him mainstream credibility.

    • Sue Lowden

      Party: Tea Party Republicans

      Job: Owner, Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall

      Age: 62

      Residence: Las Vegas

      Family: Married, three children (one deceased)

      Key endorsements: Nevada Republican Party, Carson City Republican Party

      Campaign finances: $226,485.23

      Lowden has become the favored candidate of more conservative party forces, including the Tea Party. She has more experience and better name recognition than Hutchison.

    • Why does this seat affect the 2016 senate race?

      If Flores wins, she would move into the Governor’s Office. Sandoval might be less willing to challenge Reid knowing he would leave the state in Democratic hands.

      If Hutchison wins, Sandoval would be able to leave the state in the hands of a Republican whose views align with his. He’d likely feel less confident if Lowden wins.

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