Will Sandoval Get the Lieutenant Governor He Wants?

Nevadans probably spend about 18 seconds a year thinking about their lieutenant governor, if that. That makes sense. The lieutenant governor’s job is to preside over the state senate and break ties—which, in a 21-member chamber that requires 11 votes to approve anything, is a mathematical rarity.

But lieutenant governor has developed into an interesting race for 2014, thanks to who’s running and who isn’t, and what Gov. Brian Sandoval—known to wise critics as the governor of Reno—plans to do in the future.

Sandoval persuaded GOP State Senator Mark Hutchison, in the middle of his first term, to run. This served a dual purpose. First, Hutchison’s candidacy, with the governor’s support, may have headed off possible Republican hopefuls who posed problems to Sandoval: term-limited State Senator Barbara Cegavske and Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers, both lightning rods and to the governor’s right, and Sue Lowden, the former Senate candidate who proposed to pay for her campaign by bartering chickens.

Second, a Hutchison win would give Sandoval a Republican he likes ready to take over the state. Sure, that doesn’t necessarily mean Sandoval plans to challenge Senator Harry Reid’s re-election in 2016 or leave for a Cabinet post if the next president is a Republican like, say, Rick Perry of Texas (whom Sandoval endorsed in the 2012 GOP race). But it gives him the choice.

It’s considered unusual for a governor and lieutenant governor to run as a team, since they are elected separately, can come from different parties and often don’t get along even when they belong to the same party. Most cite the precedent of 1986. Gov. Richard Bryan figured to challenge a Republican senator, Chic Hecht, in 1988, and then-Clark County District Attorney Bob Miller ran for lieutenant governor.

But there are other, better, historical precedents. In 1962, Grant Sawyer, running for a second term as governor, sought Berkeley Bunker as a running-mate: a fellow Democrat but also a Mormon, and part of a powerful political group. But reality crept in. Senator Howard Cannon, Sawyer’s fellow Democrat, would be up for reelection in 1964, and Cannon’s top aide, Jack Conlon, feared that a Democratic lieutenant governor would free Sawyer to challenge his boss. Conlon worked to undermine Bunker, and Bunker lost to a Republican, Paul Laxalt, who spent two years as lieutenant governor—then came within 84 votes of defeating Cannon for reelection.

In 1970, a former teacher, Mike O’Callaghan, ran for governor. One of his former students ran—not so coincidentally—for lieutenant governor. Most experts thought the student had a better chance than the teacher. Both won. O’Callaghan’s #2 was Harry Reid. That worked out well for both of them.

Sandoval is trying to do what governors before him have done, in Nevada and elsewhere: consolidate power within his party in the governor’s mansion. Republicans have been rudderless, with poor party leadership and numerous fights between the right and the far right. Sandoval’s appointment of Dean Heller to the Senate and outspoken backing for him against the possibility of a primary challenge from Sharron Angle attest to that goal.

In the past, Sawyer and O’Callaghan asserted themselves similarly on the Democratic side, Laxalt for Republicans during his term as governor. What makes Sandoval’s actions seem unusual is that recent governors haven’t done that, or have been unsuccessful when they tried.

Baseball manager Casey Stengel—whose creative communication style became known among sportswriters as ‘Stengelese’—once said, “I always heard it couldn’t be done, but sometimes it don’t always work.” When it comes to governor-lieutenant governor tickets, O’Callaghan tried and succeeded. Sawyer tried, and Conlon played Dr. Frankenstein, creating a monster that nearly destroyed him. In 1986, Miller won but faced a sometimes nasty campaign, and victory didn’t come easily.

None of this means Sandoval’s action here won’t pay great dividends for him, or that Hutchison’s presence won’t liberate him to join President Perry’s cabinet—if indeed Sandoval is reelected. But it does mean that sometimes, it don’t always work.