What’s Next for Brian Sandoval?

The Nevada governor will leave office in January 2019.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval
AP Photo/John Locher
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Aug. 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

Nevada’s Brian Sandoval is spending the last two years of his governorship playing a vocal role in national politics. The moderate Republican was a key voice in the Senate’s health care debate, and he anticipates he’ll continue to weigh in on national policy.

But the popular 54-year-old whose name has been floated in past years for the Senate and the White House is nearing the end of his second and final term without a firm exit plan.

Nevada insiders are already wondering if he’ll simply return to the private sector come January 2019 or find a way to stay in the political spotlight.

“There’s a lot of options for him,” said Andres Ramirez, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Gov. Bob Miller. “He’s certainly done a good job about building relationships on both sides of the aisle and establishing himself as a competent, credible leader.”

With Washington moving on to other issues following the failure of Affordable Care Act repeal, Sandoval is pivoting to a different mission. He took over last month as National Governors Association chair.

In an interview at the NGA’s summer meeting in Rhode Island days before he assumed the role, Sandoval pledged to work in a bipartisan fashion to inject governors’ insight into federal policies.

“People [are] recognizing the leadership role the governors will play in national policy,” Sandoval said.

He told the Reno Gazette-Journal at the close of his last legislative session this summer that it was “way too early” to discuss his 2019 plans. The governor’s allies insist he hasn’t given much thought to what’s next and that post-governorship planning won’t start in earnest until next year.

In the meantime, Sandoval will spend his yearlong term as NGA chair helping fellow governors craft policy to address the technological innovation transforming transportation and energy infrastructure. He’s partnering with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper to hold “innovation summits” in Colorado and Nevada. (“Everybody loves to come to Las Vegas, right?” Sandoval said while unveiling his initiative.)

His advocates and critics alike note that the telegenic, moderate, Latino governor from a Western state would be an attractive candidate for any number of national political offices or policy pushes.

But if he ran again, the moderate image he’s developed could hinder his chances with a Republican electorate that gave Donald Trump the presidential nomination over figures such as Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich. This cycle, Republican primaries could also trip up senators from the Southwest such as Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, who like Sandoval have publicly opposed Trump at times.

Heller initially sided with Sandoval in opposition to the Senate’s health care repeal plan, announcing his position in a press conference alongside the governor. Meanwhile, Sandoval alienated conservatives in Carson City by raising taxes, expanding Medicaid, favoring abortion rights, and failing to pass school-voucher reform.

“I think he’s toast in any kind of Republican primary just because of his record as governor,” said Nevada conservative grassroots activist Chuck Muth.

For that reason, political observers speculate that a judgeship would be the most likely role if Sandoval were to continue to serve in a public office. The former Bush-appointed district court judge was a possible nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia last year before President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland. Sandoval could again enter contention should another spot on the Supreme Court or the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals open up.

“He has a great love affair with the judiciary, and so I think any opportunity like that would be something he’d look at seriously,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime friend and adviser.

But any federal appointment would have to go through the White House, and Muth said he doesn’t “see the Trump administration rewarding him.”

A run for Senate—there are about a dozen former governors there now— is less likely. With Heller seeking reelection in 2018, Sandoval’s next opportunity would be in 2022, when Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto could seek reelection. But “he’s not shown an interest in running for the U.S. Senate to date or other offices,” Ernaut said.

Another longtime friend and adviser, Greg Ferraro, noted that Sandoval could have run when Reid retired last year but decided against it to focus on finishing his term. Both Ferraro and Ernaut pointed out that he still has a young daughter, and that a move to Washington would affect his family.

Plus, Ferraro added, “the gridlock, the intense politicization of Washington, the zero-sum game—all that stuff I don’t think is really appealing to him.”

Sandoval could leave politics altogether, though Ferraro said he “can pretty much rule out” the former gaming regulator becoming a lobbyist. His allies say he’ll likely get numerous job offers to serve on boards in Nevada or elsewhere, or could return to private law practice.

“Knowing him as I do, that’s the least likely path for him,” Ernaut said of the private sector. “He’s a public servant; that’s just who he is.”

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