Can Gov. Sandoval Help the GOP Win Over Latinos?

One of the favorite theories among Nevada cynics is that Governor Brian Sandoval is a man with a plan. At one point, he disclaimed interest in being on the national Republican ticket in 2012. But as he ramps up to run for re-election in 2014 and looks ahead to 2016, his national profile seems to be increasing.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which is one of many committees the two parties have to handle myriad duties, has announced that the country’s two Hispanic governors, Sandoval and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, will be recruiting minority candidates for state offices around the country. The goal is to build a bench for future candidacies.

The Associated Press story described the two governors as “moderate Republicans seen as rising stars in the party.” It also quoted Hispanic Republicans praising the initiative as proof of the party’s forward thinking, Democrats who see it as a ploy, and “a Sandoval adviser,” Mike Slanker, saying, “Gov. Sandoval believes it’s important to reach out and attract and support new young leaders from diverse backgrounds, and he’s looking forward to joining this effort.”

This is fascinating in any number of ways.

First, Republicans may think Sandoval can attract Hispanic voters, but the proof is lacking. In 2010, the Pew Research Hispanic Center reports, Sandoval won one-third of the Latino vote in his election against Democrat Rory Reid. To put Sandoval’s 33 percent in perspective, in that same election, Latinos went 69-30 for Harry Reid over Sharron Angle, as in the candidate who told a Hispanic student group, “Some of you look a little more Asian to me.”

Now, if Sandoval could run only three points ahead of Angle, perhaps his vote-getting among Hispanics might be a little less impressive than his national colleagues think. Or could it be that they don’t know or care about his vote-getting so much as they care about his name and ethnicity?

Second, Sandoval could very well be buying himself a problem for his 2014 re-election bid that he doesn’t need, or demonstrating that he doesn’t see anything to worry about. Nationally, immigration has tied his party into knots. Several GOP senators recently joined Democratic colleagues in proposing an immigration measure that President Barack Obama has expressed a willingness to sign, and he said that, among other times, while visiting Las Vegas to thump for immigration reform. That means some Republicans are willing to work with Obama—even John McCain, who can’t even think of the president without looking constipated. But others in the House and Senate are dubious about the measure.

Sandoval has varied as a politician between shrewd (knowing how to make a deal or retreat to a better position) and naively ham-handed (backing Rick Perry during the 2012 campaign was an act of loyalty, but potentially an act of stupidity). His fellow Nevada Republicans are as divided and queasy about this issue as their national counterparts. Sandoval appears to have decided that the possibility of wading into the national debate outweighs the danger of angering Nevadans. Besides, he won in 2010 with only one-third of the Hispanic vote—how could it be any worse?

Third, the question is how this ties in with Sandoval’s plan after his re-election (he presumes it, and so do many political experts, although the first rule of politics is that you never know). Republicans chose their respondent to Obama’s State of the Union Address: Senator Marco Rubio, the young Floridian and onetime Nevadan who is part of the immigration compromise group. Now, if you’re the national GOP and you want a Hispanic presidential candidate, do you want one who has tried to help solve the immigration puzzle and comes from a state with 29 electoral votes, or one who barely registered on the radar of Hispanics in his home state, which has six electoral votes?

Or perhaps Sandoval is casting longing glances at the Senate in 2016, thinking either that
Harry Reid will retire or, if he doesn’t, that Sandoval can beat him? And that this is a step down that road? Perhaps he should ask his adviser, Slanker. He was the top political adviser to Sen. John Ensign. Remember him? A Nevada Republican with national ambitions and a national profile. He doesn’t seem to have taken much advice.

Sandoval did get to choose Ensign’s replacement, Dean Heller, whom Republicans have hoped would be a leader on immigration reform. He wasn’t part of the bipartisan group that announced a bill, but said, “I support many of the principles included in this plan, and look forward to reviewing specific details in the weeks and months ahead.” Slanker is one of Bipartisan Dean’s advisers, too. 

What do you think? Does Gov. Brian Sandoval have a future on the national stage? Tell us in the comments section below.