Whatever Sandoval has done correctly or incorrectly, it won’t get a proper hearing without meaningful political opposition. Yes, the topic of Sandoval will come up in other races, but mostly in the context of whether he will challenge Senator Harry Reid for reelection in 2016. Yet far more important is the question of his policies. A state that is ranked at or near the bottom on virtually every measurement of social progress, justice and services needs to discuss those failings. With no significant primary or Democratic foes, that discussion is unlikely to happen.
The presumably smooth ride to victory is also bad for Sandoval himself. Wherever he is headed after being governor—amid the speculation that he will run against Senator Harry Reid in 2016, expect him to become either a federal judge or a Cabinet or sub-Cabinet official in a potential Hillary Clinton administration—he will have to express opinions, based on facts. While those to his right can sometimes be incoherent in their rantings against his failure to keep his ridiculous 2010 no-tax promise, he would gain valuable experience from a primary in which he would have to answer them.
This yawn-inducing governor’s race also reminds us that Nevada may have matured quite a bit politically, but it still has a long way to go. Recently, a lobbyist muttered that those who think of Nevada as a one-party state dominated by gaming have it wrong. “It’s the R&R party,” he said, referring to the behemoth political consulting firm with clients on both sides of the aisle. Talk if you want about southern legislators pledging to stand up for the nearly three-quarters of Nevada’s residents who live in Clark County and generate most of the state’s revenue. In the end, the powers that be have gotten what they wanted with barely a peep out of either the supposed opposition or the population center of the state, which still hasn’t figured out that it is indeed powerful.
Even popular Nevada governors have sometimes faced unpleasantness when seeking reelection. In 1962, Democratic Governor Grant Sawyer would have had a difficult time overcoming his Republican opponent, Lieutenant Governor Rex Bell, a former actor; some in the public may have appreciated Sawyer’s tough approach to gaming control and support for civil rights, but the gaming industry didn’t. Only because Bell died before the primary did Sawyer have an easy time.
Similarly, in 1974, Republicans had no hope of defeating Mike O’Callaghan—but a third-party candidate, James Ray Houston, put everybody on edge until revelations just before the election that he didn’t like to obey the law. Former Gov. Bob Miller served for a decade, from 1989 to 1999, but still encountered legitimate primary and general election challengers—then-Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones and then-legislator Jim Gibbons, respectively.
It’s hard to imagine that any of his opponents will make Sandoval sweat. But chief executives who sweep to overwhelming reelection victories tend to end up doing things that make the voters sweat, from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal. It will be important for Nevada’s sake for Sandoval to remember that he owes much of his doubtless-overwhelming reelection to advisers, friends, and ineffectual Democrats; the person with the least to do with it will be himself.
Politics columnist Michael Green is breaking down the 2014 Nevada primary races in a series of blog posts leading up the June 10 election. Got a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.