If the biggest surprise in Nevada politics this year was U.S. Senator Harry Reid’s abrupt retirement announcement, the biggest non-surprise was Governor Brian Sandoval deciding not to challenge Reid, even after Reid revealed he was vacating his seat. The biggest surprise about the non-surprise is how few Nevadans realize that Sandoval emulated the two governors generally considered the best in the state’s history—and how those governors’ decisions affected the career of Sandoval’s political idol.
Let’s crack open the history book:
In 1962, having enhanced gaming control and fought for civil rights legislation, Democrat Grant Sawyer cruised to a second term as governor. The major Democratic failure that year was in the lieutenant governor’s race. Berkeley Bunker—a former state senator and assemblyman, and a prominent Mormon—was supposed to win. But Bunker had been in a big intraparty fight two decades prior. One of his old political adversaries, Jack Conlon, was the top aide to Democratic U.S. Senator Howard Cannon. Conlon and his allies did their best (or worst) to avenge earlier slights.
More shrewdly, Conlon wanted to protect Cannon’s job in Washington, D.C. He thought with a Democrat as lieutenant governor, Sawyer might challenge Cannon in the 1964 Senate primary. Sawyer never would have done it, but Conlon wasn’t about to take a chance.
The lieutenant governor candidate Conlon helped elect was Republican Paul Laxalt. And in 1964, Laxalt challenged Cannon’s re-election. It was a political suicide mission: Nevada was Democratic, President Lyndon Johnson was going to have long coattails, and Laxalt was tight with Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, a sure loser.
Sure enough, Laxalt lost—but only by a scant 84 votes.
As for Sawyer, he didn’t let political ambition get in the way of common sense, but there’s also the question of whether he ever wanted to be a U.S. senator, because he had another chance. Late in 1973, U.S. Senator Alan Bible chose not to run again, and informed two fellow Democrats of his decision: Sawyer and then-Governor Mike O’Callaghan. At this point, Sawyer, who left Carson City in 1967, was enjoying being a high-priced lawyer and behind-the-scenes operative. (And the joke was that his wife, Bette, who wasn’t enamored of the political whirl, warned, “If he files, I’ll file!”—and she didn’t mean for office.)
O’Callaghan, meanwhile, faced a different circumstance than Sawyer in 1964 or Sandoval in 2016. Because his first term was ending in 1974, O’Callaghan had to make a choice: Run for a second term as governor—and he loved being governor—or pursue the Senate post.
Nationally, Democrats courted both Sawyer and O’Callaghan. For his part, Sawyer went to see old friend and campaign comrade Ralph Denton, a longtime attorney who had run twice for Congress and lost. Sawyer urged Denton to run for governor, assuring him “Iron Mike” would go after Bible’s Senate seat. They also believed it was too soon for O’Callaghan’s lieutenant governor—some kid named Harry Reid—to move up to the big job.
So, Denton filed for governor, only to withdraw when O’Callaghan announced he would indeed seek a second term in Carson City (which he won in a landslide, grabbing 67 percent of the vote).
With Sawyer and O’Callaghan opting out, Reid ran for the Senate, and he should have won—it was the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and Democrats dominated across the country. But a mismanaged campaign and lack of Mormon support cost him. Who defeated Reid by 611 votes? Laxalt. Who was one of Laxalt’s interns during his two Senate terms (1974-87)? None other than Sandoval.
The tendency is to compare Sandoval’s dilemma to that of Richard Bryan, who adored being governor and was very good at it (he won reelection by the largest margin in Nevada’s history, slightly bigger than Sandoval in 2014). But midway through his second term in 1988, Bryan chose to make a run at incumbent U.S. Senator Chic Hecht. Bryan ousted the Republican, but lasted only two terms, retiring after growing disillusioned with the nastiness in Washington. Carson City was nasty itself this year, but Sandoval—who, like Bryan, is viewed as a nice guy even by his enemies—chose to emulate Sawyer and O’Callaghan and stay put.
Maybe Kathleen Sandoval pulled a Bette Sawyer on her husband. Or maybe Sandoval didn’t want to deal with the fundraising and fury of a Senate race. Whatever the reason, as with his governorship, Sandoval’s decision made history—and he appears to have thought about history in making it.
Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.