By Jack Minchew.
Even in relatively inconsequential election seasons, sub-gubernatorial state executive elections rarely draw any attention. After all, why does the election of a lieutenant governor, attorney general, or secretary of state matter to anyone who does not reside in that particular state? From a national standpoint, their powers are minimal, their names are unknown, and unlike state governors, they are not in a position to influence the national political landscape. So, in such an important and critical election season such as 2014 and with the control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on the line, why are so many powerful politicians spending time and money on the Nevada lieutenant governor’s race?
To find the reason, it is necessary to look past the 2014 midterm elections, and look forward to 2016, when Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) comes up for re-election.
Running in 2010, a strong Republican year, Reid barely managed to keep his position, earning just over 50 percent of the vote against an extremely weak Republican candidate, Sharron Angle. In a state that is almost 30 percent Hispanic, Angle made numerous derogatory remarks about Latinos, which, along with countless other gaffes, combined to sink her campaign. After the election, the consensus among many political observers was that Reid had won only because of Angle’s incompetence.
Immediately after Angle’s defeat, Republican strategists began searching for a candidate that could defeat Reid in 2016. They found that candidate in the form of Nevada’s popular Latino Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. Sandoval is, in many ways, the Republican’s perfect senate candidate. He has some of the highest approval ratings of any governor, a moderate voting history, and perhaps most importantly, a track record of being able to woo Hispanic voters.
Sandoval is expected to cruise easily to re-election this year (recent polls show him with over a 20 percent advantage over his opponent), but his Republican running mate, Lt. Governor candidate Mark Hutchinson has no such advantage. Hutchinson is in a dead heat race with Democrat Lucy Flores, a state assemblywoman whom Democratic operatives see as a rising star.
In Nevada, as in most states, if the governor resigns, the lieutenant governor would replace him or her. This means that if Flores is elected, Sandoval will not be able to resign without giving away the governorship to the Democrats, preventing him from running against Harry Reid in 2016. Other than Sandoval, top-tier Republican Senate candidates are few and far between, virtually guaranteeing Reid another weak opponent and a likely re-election.
Both parties have flagged this as a critical election and have deployed some of their top strategists and fundraisers to aid their respective candidates. In September, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and 5 other Republican senators hosted a Capitol Hill event for Hutchinson. Reid has responded by holding his own fundraisers for Flores and by deploying his own campaign manager to advise her.
There is very little poll data on the Lt. Governor race, but most Nevada political observers give Hutchinson a slight edge due to Sandoval’s popularity and decreased Democratic voter turnout in non-presidential elections. Despite this, the election is still very much a toss-up, and with just under a month left until Election Day, there is still a great deal of time for the race to shift. So when watching the election returns on November 4th, remember to check on the results of the Nevada Lt. Governor’s race. Politics are a never-ending cycle, and as soon as the 2014 elections are over, the 2016 election season begins.