Did Sandoval Strike Out with the Bases Loaded?

With the World Series going, the only inside baseball likely to interest most people is whether it’s possible to pitch to Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals without getting killed. But recently, Gov. Brian Sandoval was involved in a couple of Republican political maneuvers that actually could matter more than they appear:

Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls appeared in Las Vegas for a debate in conjunction with the Western Republican Leadership Conference.  Whether you thought it was a good night depends on whether you’re a Democrat (you loved it) or a Republican (you’re trying to decide). One of my students put it best: She thought the candidates, especially Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were going to rip their shirts off and start fighting.

No doubt their chest hair would have been perfectly coiffed, but that isn’t the point. Perry happened to mention talking to Sandoval and then, in one of his regularly scheduled battles with clarity, discussed green energy and gas prices without explaining whether that’s what they discussed.

Sandoval endorsed Perry soon after he entered the race and appeared about to steamroll Romney. Apparently, it’s personal—he and Perry have gotten along; he and Romney haven’t. That’s understandable.

What’s less understandable is the risk Sandoval is taking nationally in endorsing Perry if the Texas governor goes nowhere, or back to Texas. Which brings us to …

The caucus fight, in which Nevada’s GOP finally agreed to a Feb. 4 presidential caucus. It had been scheduled for Feb. 18. Nevada decided to move it back to Jan. 14, raising hackles in New Hampshire and the national party and prompting threats and boycotts. In the end, the Nevada GOP blinked, with Sandoval and party officials pooh-poohing the whole thing.

Again, much of this is inside baseball and may seem irrelevant to your daily lives. Not necessarily.

Sandoval is trying to exert control over the Nevada Republican Party, which has been out of control, due to poor administration (especially compared with state Democrats) and continuing battles between conservatives and libertarians. This distinguishes him from his two GOP predecessors, Kenny Guinn, who tended to stay above that, and Jim Gibbons, who was above nothing.

It makes him similar to such Democratic predecessors as Grant Sawyer and Mike O’Callaghan. Sawyer especially believed a state party’s power resided in the governor’s office—although he felt a little differently when he was no longer governor and O’Callaghan was, and they threw the occasional elbow.

But Sawyer also took risks. When he was elected in 1958, he enjoyed support from allies of John F. Kennedy, who ran for president two years later with Sawyer backing him in Nevada. Lyndon Johnson also ran, and the state’s two U.S. senators, Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, backed him. Relations were sometimes strained. LBJ actually got more Nevada votes at the national convention, and Sawyer was embarrassed. But, with JFK in the White House and his brother contemplating a raid on Nevada casinos that would have harmed the state’s economy and reputation, Sawyer and a fellow JFK backer, Attorney General Roger Foley, got in to see the president and had his ear. The raid didn’t happen. Whether JFK would have felt similarly if Sawyer had backed LBJ is worth pondering.

Sandoval is in a different place. Nevada’s electoral votes matter more now than they did when Sawyer was governor, and the Hispanic population gives Sandoval an added cachet with his party—especially since Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida exaggerated how his family came to the U.S. (not, as he used to claim, due to Fidel Castro coming to power). So Sandoval may be more easily forgiven.

But, nationally, Republicans have seen Sandoval do two things. He endorsed Perry, who almost immediately went into a tailspin and wound up behind Romney, who isn’t noted for his warmth and forgiveness. And he asserted power over a state party that just demonstrated it still can’t figure out which end is up. The Albert Pujols of governors, he isn’t.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.