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September 18, 2019

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Sandoval could keep Democrats awake at night in 2016

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Julie Jacobson / AP

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer shakes hands with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval after unveiling a sign for the future Interstate 11 on Friday, March 21, 2014, at Hoover Dam, Ariz. The two governors gathered to unveil signs that will be posted along the proposed Interstate 11. It was a symbolic effort meant to keep up momentum on the project, which is coming of age in an era of scarce highway funding.

Let’s take a trip to 2016, and see what’s happening with Brian Sandoval.

Assuming he hasn’t surprised anybody, he’s likely on one of two paths. He either has been chosen as the GOP presidential candidate’s running mate or has decided to carry out the Republicans’ long-awaited showdown with Harry Reid.

Whichever scenario plays out, one thing is certain: For Democrats, Sandoval is a dangerous man.

Democrats know Sandoval well, and many like him. In fact, several of his career advancements have been because of Democrats promoting or appointing him to major roles. He’s an acceptable GOP alternative to some Democrats — even the leaders — and that makes him a threat in an election.

Should he remain free of controversy and should Nevada’s economic recovery stay on track, he very well could go national.

His record of occasionally rubbing against the GOP grain on issues such as immigration and health care gives him the broad appeal Republicans need after marginalizing themselves through Tea Party extremism.

However, in today’s GOP, Sandoval’s mainstream appeal can be a liability. Mitt Romney was a lot like Sandoval — smooth, cautious, capable of working with Democrats at times. Things didn’t work out well for Romney. As he campaigned for president in 2012, he moved further to the right, and it never jibed with his background as governor. “Who is Mitt Romney?” became an issue and could be an issue with, Sandoval too.

But his Hispanic heritage gives the party a chance to open its tent wider, inviting minority groups who have found the GOP to be exclusionary and have become frustrated with Democrats for a lack of progress on immigration reform. Another potential advantage for Sandoval: In the crass calculus of national politics and harsh reality of race relations in the United States, his small-town Western upbringing and the fact he doesn’t speak Spanish wouldn’t put off conservatives.

In 2016, Sandoval will be 53 years old with experience as an attorney general, a federal judge and six years as governor — a trajectory that points squarely to a national office. He doesn’t take extreme stands, rarely commits blunders, hasn’t had any significant personal scandals and every now and then knocks one out of the park, as many thought he did orchestrating the $1.25 billion deal to bring Tesla Motors’ battery factory to Nevada.

And he looks good, which isn’t a small point on the big stage of national politics in the 21st century. The Hollywood hair, dark eyes and rock-solid jawline look great on video.

So for a GOP presidential candidate, especially a white one with conservative leanings that would appeal to the party’s traditional base, Sandoval could be the perfect balancing act.

But that’s if he doesn’t decide to face Reid.

He already has gone up against the senator — sort of — having defeated Reid’s son Rory in the 2010 gubernatorial race. He handed Reid another loss — again, sort of — this year when Reid failed to deliver on a promise to find a candidate to thwart Sandoval’s re-election bid.

Sandoval would be vulnerable in a national election, undeniably. Open the folder on his record, and some problems leap out.

The state’s public education system remains an underfunded catastrophe under his watch, foreclosures and jobless numbers are still high, and the rollout of the state’s health care exchange was a study in dysfunction. Then there’s the scandal over the state dumping mental patients in California, for which Sandoval was criticized for reacting slowly. There also is no shortage of critics who think Sandoval and other leaders got played in the Tesla Motors battery factory deal, giving up too many incentives.

But no politician is perfect, and Sandoval has a better record than many.

Then there’s this: He is connected to a growing national political fundraising machine led by GOP Sen. Dean Heller that is building up for an all-out assault on Reid in 2016.

So, a central question hangs around Sandoval: Will he be a senator or a vice presidential candidate?

There’s actually another question to consider, as well. Will he do neither?

Sandoval brushes off questions about his future, saying he is happy as governor. Insiders say he’s not hungry for a national office, at least not in the throbbing-vein-in-the-forehead way that major U.S. politicians tend to be. He’s a pleaser, those around him say, not a player.

Of course, that’s what he has to say — he’s running for governor now, and no sane politician says, “Elect me to office so I can leave in two years.” We’ve seen that movie before: Sarah Palin left Alaska barely into her first term as governor and was widely criticized for it.

The differences are that Sandoval will have completed a full term and is considered more qualified to hold national office. And that raises the more profound question: Given the challenges in the state and the governor’s influence, would Sandoval walk away from serious issues two years into his term?

But Sandoval’s eagerness to please actually may make him more likely to be a candidate in 2016. The GOP probably will need somebody like him — for national office and to try to take down Harry Reid.

So back to our trip to 2016. Let’s assume Sandoval hasn’t tripped up. No extramarital idiocy, no major misstep on policy, no surprise announcement that he won’t seek a national office. Instead, it has been two years of Sandoval being Sandoval — politically careful, pleasing the right people, personally nondramatic to the point of being bland, chugging away every day and becoming a stronger and stronger national candidate in the process.

No matter what, if Sandoval wins as expected Tuesday, the GOP has a new star in the wings and the Democrats have the kind of challenge that keeps them up at night.

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