It’s Hard to Make Friends in High Places. Just Ask Governor Sandoval

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

It’s taken the sage grouse for Governor Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt to give each other the bird. But other Republicans also are getting in on the fun.

Two mining companies, along with Elko and Eureka counties, sued to stop an agreement involving the federal government and 11 states to protect the sage grouse, the potentially endangered ground-dwelling bird. Laxalt filed a similar suit, claiming the agreement limits mineral development on 3 million acres and grazing on 16 million more. Among those hailing Laxalt—and thus submarining Sandoval—were Senator Dean Heller and Representatives Mark Amodei, Cresent Hardy and Joe Heck.

Sandoval objected to “prematurely embroiling the state in costly litigation.” Laxalt replied, “The governor’s statement seeking to undermine this sage grouse litigation is troubling.”

Let’s set aside that it’s a rare bit of cooperation between Western states and the federal government, and that one of the creatures we’re supposed to be responsible for may benefit. For gourmands of Nevada’s history and politics, this is not so much a feast as a bacchanalia.

The complaints about protecting the sage grouse are redolent of the outcry that occurred when Senator Alan Bible tried to set aside land in White Pine County for a national park in the 1950s and 1960s, that mining and ranching will be destroyed. Two decades later, then-Representative Harry Reid got the park through Congress and both industries somehow survived, while the park actually attracted visitors.

Nor is it unusual for statewide officials who belong to the same party to disagree. Governor Grant Sawyer and his attorneys general—all fellow Democrats—sometimes disagreed publicly on issues and politics. Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Rose didn’t always endear himself to his governor, Mike O’Callaghan.

Indeed, Democrats often formed circular firing squads and began shooting at one another. They cost themselves U.S. Senate seats—not only when Representative Jim Santini wounded incumbent Senator Howard Cannon in the 1982 primary, helping Chic Hecht to defeat Cannon later that year, but when Pat McCarran was the state’s political boss and regularly promoted internal party warfare. It’s about time Republicans joined them.

But it’s also a sign of success. Democrats won most major Nevada offices from 1932 to 1980. Having power, they fought over its distribution. Republicans have done much better, and 2014 marked a rout: They won all six statewide offices and the Legislature, and took a Democratic House seat.

Then Sandoval decided that the rhetoric about making Nevada more appealing to business required improving its educational system. He persuaded enough Republicans to go along with him and try something new: spend money on education. Sandoval might reasonably have expected to be cut some slack, since he had just been overwhelmingly re-elected and did much to help elect fellow Republicans. But some of them prefer an uneducated, underpaid population.

Laxalt benefited from Sandoval’s support in 2014, but his first major action as attorney general was joining a multistate lawsuit against President Obama’s order on immigration. He didn’t consult with Sandoval, himself a former state attorney general; he simply told Sandoval that he was doing it. Even before the 2015 Legislature, Ray Hagar, the longtime Reno Gazette-Journal political reporter who is retiring, wrote that Laxalt “might beat Sandoval in a GOP primary that traditionally attracts the conservative faction of the party, especially after the tax increases … Sandoval is pushing through the Legislature.”

But on this issue, Heller, a Sandoval appointee and supposed close ally up for election in 2018—when Laxalt could challenge him or run for governor or reelection—echoed Laxalt. So did Heck, who is running statewide for the first time, may face a challenge from Sharron Angle and won his first election by running to the right of the Legislature’s most right-wing member. So did Amodei, another longtime Sandoval ally who was a moderately conservative Republican in the Legislature until he went to Congress and began warning of a Chinese invasion of the U.S. So did Hardy, who is defending rural Nevada while running again in a majority-minority district with more than 80 percent of its residents in Clark County and might benefit from aid from a Hispanic governor.

An earlier Republican whom Sandoval admires, Mr. Lincoln, once lamented that “to be wounded in the house of one’s friends is perhaps the most grievous affliction that can befall a man.” Perhaps Sandoval can take solace that they also are wounding themselves.

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