Why Nevada’s Top Politicians Got Involved in the Lieutenant Governor’s Race

Harry Reid and Brian Sandoval may be eyeing short-term ramifications in 2016, but they’re also trying to build their parties for the long run.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) answers questions from reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Democratic caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Reid spoke on recent efforts by Senate Republicans to filibuster judicial nominees appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama.  
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
June 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Rarely does a second-tier statewide race, however hotly con­tested it might be, cap­ture na­tion­al at­ten­tion. But Nevada’s lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor’s race has drawn in some first-tier polit­ic­al per­son­al­it­ies. Not only has it be­come a proxy battle between the chosen can­did­ates of Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Bri­an San­dov­al, the cam­paign is also a sym­bol of how the two lead­ers are try­ing to shape and change their parties in the crit­ic­al West­ern swing state.

The LG cam­paign gained clar­ity Tues­day, when state Sen. Mark Hutchis­on de­feated one-time Sen­ate can­did­ate Sue Lowden in the Re­pub­lic­an primary for the post. San­dov­al openly favored Hutchis­on in the primary, en­dors­ing the state sen­at­or minutes after he entered the race. Hutchis­on will face state As­semb­ly­wo­man Lucy Flores, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, in the fall.

The race for Nevada’s No. 2 spot has long been con­sidered part of a long-run­ning chess match between Re­id and San­dov­al. Some ex­pect the gov­ernor to chal­lenge Re­id for his Sen­ate seat in 2016, which would po­ten­tially make the next lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor more of a gov­ernor-in-wait­ing — mean­ing a Demo­crat in the spot would be­come a road­b­lock to any fed­er­al am­bi­tions San­dov­al might have.

San­dov­al’s team played a cent­ral role in Hutchis­on’s op­er­a­tion, and Re­id hasn’t shied away from his sup­port for Flores. Re­id held a fun­draiser for Flores in D.C. in May, and his 2010 cam­paign man­ager, Brandon Hall, is serving as her me­dia strategist.

“Sen­at­or Re­id sup­ports her in any way he can, just as he sup­ports Nevada Demo­crats in any way he can,” said Kristen Orth­man, Re­id’s na­tion­al press sec­ret­ary. “He al­ways sup­por­ted Lucy when she ran for as­sembly, just as he does now. She’s a pretty in­spir­ing lead­er.”

Apart from any near-term Sen­ate in­trigue, though, the lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor race is em­blem­at­ic of broad­er ef­forts by San­dov­al and Re­id to re­shape their state parties — and their status re­l­at­ive to each oth­er. Re­id and long­time polit­ic­al aide Re­becca Lambe are known for the Demo­crat­ic vic­tor­ies they’ve en­gin­eered in Nevada over the past dec­ade, and this con­test will of­fer a test of wheth­er San­dov­al’s new­er polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion can prove its mettle des­pite a state Re­pub­lic­an Party once cited as one of the na­tion’s most dys­func­tion­al.

Hutchis­on is one of sev­er­al es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates who got San­dov­al’s back­ing be­fore Tues­day’s le­gis­lat­ive and House primar­ies, part of the gov­ernor’s con­tinu­ing ef­fort to re­claim lead­er­ship of the state party from con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists and Ron Paul aco­lytes who won con­trol dur­ing the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race. San­dov­al an­nounced back in Feb­ru­ary he wouldn’t par­ti­cip­ate in the of­fi­cial GOP en­dorse­ment pro­cess and in­stead backed his own picks in the lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor’s race, Nevada’s 4th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict primary, and at least three state Sen­ate primar­ies.

While San­dov­al backed Hutchis­on, the state party threw its en­dorse­ment to Lowden, who got less than 40 per­cent of the Re­pub­lic­an primary vote Tues­day.

The gov­ernor also hopes to par­lay high fa­vor­ab­il­ity among the state’s grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion in­to sup­port for the en­tire GOP tick­et. So the dy­nam­ic between San­dov­al and Flores, the oth­er highest-pro­file His­pan­ic can­did­ate on Nevada’s bal­lot this year, will be as prom­in­ent as that between the Demo­crat and Hutchis­on.

“As the lead­er of our party, Bri­an San­dov­al is fo­cused on rais­ing the re­sources, sup­port­ing strong can­did­ates, and win­ning elec­tions in the fall. His abil­ity to at­tract His­pan­ic voters is a very power­ful tool for the en­tire GOP tick­et,” said GOP strategist Mike Slanker, who ad­vises both San­dov­al and Hutchis­on.

San­dov­al cam­paign man­ager Jeremy Hughes said the gov­ernor has worked di­li­gently to reach out to the state’s His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion, which ac­counts for one in four Nevada res­id­ents and roughly 15 per­cent of eli­gible voters. He hired former Uni­vi­sion pro­du­cer Ar­lene Rivera in 2013 to serve as dir­ect­or of His­pan­ic me­dia and has worked to in­tro­duce vari­ous Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates to Span­ish-speak­ing voters across the state. “We’re show­ing up, which people hadn’t done be­fore,” said Hughes.

Re­id, a white Mor­mon who will turn 75 this year, may not strike many as an agent of change. But he has also taken strides to sup­port His­pan­ic can­did­ates who could help buoy turnout and be­ne­fit the en­tire tick­et. In 2012, Re­id quietly sup­por­ted state Sen. Ruben Ki­huen when he was con­sid­er­ing a con­gres­sion­al bid in the 1st Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, though Rep. Dina Tit­us even­tu­ally made a suc­cess­ful comeback bid there.

Flores is con­sidered a rising star by many be­sides Re­id, while Hutchis­on’s can­did­acy has at­trac­ted na­tion­al at­ten­tion, too. Flores has already earned the back­ing of EMILY’s List and the Latino Vic­tory Pro­ject, while Hutchis­on was en­dorsed by his party’s 2012 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, Mitt Rom­ney. Rom­ney has been act­ively sup­port­ing es­tab­lish­ment-friendly can­did­ates in primar­ies across the coun­try and had to per­son­ally con­tend with the Nevada GOP’s haphaz­ard in­fra­struc­ture dur­ing his pres­id­en­tial bid two years ago.

In an in­ter­view with Real­Clear­Polit­ics, San­dov­al de­scribed Flores as “for­mid­able,” but San­dov­al’s cam­paign man­ager Jeremy Hughes main­tained, “Mark’s go­ing to have a really good story to tell. We won’t cede any ground to Lucy.”

That’s the story of the cam­paign in mini­ature, a race in which both party lead­ers are try­ing to pro­tect and de­vel­op their polit­ic­al turf.

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