When Being No. 2 Matters


All eyes are on this year’s race for Nevada lieutenant governor, which probably will make for the most interesting primary and general election. But just how important is the contest for the state’s number-two job?

Two Republicans, State Senator Mark Hutchison and Sue Lowden, are vying to face Democratic two-term Assemblywoman Lucy Flores in the general election.

Hutchinson, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s pick for the job, has spent one session in Carson City, while Lowden served one term as a state senator and a spell as state party chair before losing a U.S. Senate primary to Sharron Angle in 2010.

While lieutenant governor’s races usually aren’t nail-biters, this one has drawn the attention of observers who presume that Governor Brian Sandoval might leave office halfway through his term to be a U.S. senator—if he is able to beat Harry Reid. Whether a Democrat or Republican would move into the gubernatorial office, this train of thought goes, could influence Sandoval’s decision.

While Hutchison’s election would in theory enable Sandoval to comfortably head for Capitol Hill, you can bet that a Democratic win in this race won’t affect the governor’s decision to run or not run. If he wants to be a U.S. senator, that job will matter more to him. His closest allies may also make the decision for him. And remember, Sandoval left the assembly to be a gaming commissioner, the gaming commission to be attorney general, the attorney general’s office to be a federal judge and then a federal judgeship to become governor. Leaving before the job is done wouldn’t exactly be new.

What if Hutchison loses the primary to Lowden, who is running to the right of both her opponent and the governor? Wouldn’t Sandoval be endangering his legacy as much with someone well to his right as he would if he left a Democrat in charge? If you want an answer to that question, look south, where Republican Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona took over from Democrat Janet Napolitano, who left the state in GOP hands to join Barack Obama’s cabinet. Brewer certainly hasn’t followed Napolitano’s lead, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered her predecessor—and the same outcome likely wouldn’t bother Sandoval.

For Democrats who are looking to capitalize on GOP divisions in this race, good luck: The alliances among Republican factions are constantly shifting. Hutchison has been working hard to appeal to the GOP base after taking some more centrist positions while in the legislature. Meanwhile, Lowden has warred with the party’s Ron Paul faction in the past—but that group now seems to be supporting her on the grounds that she isn’t Hutchison.

Whoever Flores faces in the general election, her potential as a woman and a Latina to promote turnout in ways that help the whole ticket could well prove to be the point most worth pondering during this campaign. Go back to 1998, when Reid barely staved off then-Representative John Ensign to win reelection, a victory that almost every pro-Reid Nevadan has taken credit for at some point. A major factor behind Reid’s win: The Democratic ticket was largely made up of women, including gubernatorial candidate Jan Jones and Shelley Berkley, then seeking her first term in the House. Their presence helped drive turnout for the party in a midterm election, reminding us that in Nevada, as in the nation, it’s not just ideology but demographics that often carry the day.