Friday, June 12, 2015 | 2 a.m.
When Gov. Brian Sandoval revealed recently he would forgo a run for Senate, the announcement ended a year of speculation about his political future but triggered a new round of conjecture.
The subject this time around: What's next for the Nevada GOP's power structure?
U.S. Rep Joe Heck and state Sen. Michael Roberson are now the GOP front-runners looking to make high-profile ladder climbs this election season. The two are still publicly quiet about their plans, but Nevada political observers are abuzz about the futures of the two Southern Nevada lawmakers.
It’s all but certain that Heck — a two-term congressman — will run to fill the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Harry Reid. Roberson, the state Senate majority leader in the 2015 legislative session, will likely run for Heck’s seat in the 3rd Congressional District, which comprises Henderson and Summerlin.
As for Sandoval, saying no to the Senate may open other doors. So what are the potential paths for the state's top Republicans?
Shortly after Sandoval’s decision Tuesday, Heck said he would make an announcement “soon.” His resume looks like a blueprint for any upwardly mobile Republican candidate. He is a physician, Iraq war veteran, brigadier general in the Army reserves and former state lawmaker. His suburban district is a Republican stronghold where only one Democrat, Dina Titus, has won the seat since lawmakers created the district in 2003.
Heck’s run for the U.S. Senate in a presidential year will likely pose challenges he would not face in a re-election bid for CD3.
For one, Republicans could face backlash in Southern Nevada for their opposition to immigration reform. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democrat nominee for president, has a strong base in Nevada and is expected to rally Latino voters to the polls with a promise of continuing to push forward on reforms initiated by President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Nevada and 25 other states are challenging in federal court Obama’s executive actions to ease deportations for undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers and state attorneys general say the lawsuit is a state’s rights issue and not a move relocate undocumented immigrants.
For Heck and other Republicans, strong Latino turnout could be an obstacle considering that Nevada’s Latino demographic comprises more than 10 percent of the state’s population. During the 2012 presidential election, in which Obama carried Nevada, Latino participation was estimated to be at least 15 percent of voters.
“Until immigration is resolved, Republicans aren’t going to win presidential races when Latinos mobilize around that issue,” said David Damore, political science professor at UNLV.
Republicans swept the 2014 midterms, but turnout was low among all demographics compared to a presidential election. Participation will undoubtedly be far greater in 2016, given that Nevada has carved itself as one of seven influential swing states in national elections.
If Heck does run, he will be going against former attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto. Masto is Reid’s hand-picked candidate and would be the first Latina woman to serve in the Senate.
Heck has supported Republican-backed immigration reform and expressed frustration about the impasse on the issue in Congress. That will likely not deter activists and campaign operatives from bashing him on the issue. Last year, immigration advocates swarmed Heck’s campaign office, demanding him to call for a vote on a Senate plan that the House never passed.
Aside from Immigration, some experts say that Heck is poised to win the Senate because of his strong resume.
“I know it is presidential year,” Bob List, former Republican governor, said. “But this is a guy who is an expert in two critical issues: national defense and health care.”
Nevada is home to at least 18 military bases, depots and other facilities. It has around 11,000 active duty members and more than 180,000 veterans. Heck sits on the Armed Services Committee and the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence.
With health care, Heck has voted at least 37 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He’s been an outspoken critic of the employer mandate requiring companies offer insurance if they have more than 50 employees, saying that it will kill jobs.
Las Vegas Councilman Bob Beers, a Republican, has announced he would run for the seat, and other GOP primary contestants could include former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and former state lawmaker Heidi Gansert.
He was Sandoval’s No. 1 guy inside the Legislature and influential in ushering in the highest tax increase in the state’s history to reform public education.
Roberson was able to overcome a swath of GOP opposition to the tax hikes — which total more than $1.3 billion — to implement a series of reforms by adding more charter schools, more English language learning programs and mandates for underperforming students.
Roberson ran on a no-new-tax platform during his first run for state Senate in 2010, but, like many Nevada Republicans, followed suit with Sandoval’s call to bolster the state’s bottom-tier public education program.
If Roberson runs in Heck’s district, the relinquishing of his no-new-tax pledge should not be a problem. Roberson — much like Heck — is in the establishment circle of the state’s Republicans. He has deep financial backing, ties to Washington and the support of Sandoval. In the 2014 midterm, Roberson was an architect of the state Senate takeover and had control of influential PACs to fund races.
List, who works at the same law firm as Roberson, said he was “a natural” for the job.
“Roberson really set himself up as a leader — a very competent and careful public official,” List said.
Sandoval said he wanted to focus on his job as governor, but an offer from a Republican president may change his tune on finishing his term.
Some say he’s a lock for vice president if Jeb Bush wins the nomination. Others contend that he would be a good fit for interior secretary or attorney general if the GOP wins back the presidency.
There also are murmurs that Sandoval, a former federal judge, will seek another position on the federal bench or even be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court if a vacancy opens while a Republican is in office.
For now, Sandoval seems content in remaining at the state level, where he's built an enormous amount of political capital after winning two terms and steering the vast majority of his 2015 legislative initiatives through the process.
“At the end of the day, being a U.S. senator is not a lot of fun,” Damore said. “Being governor of a state with a really weak Legislature is.”