Much has been said about the changing face of the Republican Party, including by yours truly. But in my humble opinion, not enough is being said about how the Republican Party has been changing here in Nevada. Perhaps the biggest change is happening at the top of our ballots this year, and it’s about time we recognize the elephant on this casino floor.
How Sandoval lost his party
When he first ran for Governor in 2010 Brian Sandoval (R) ran on a “TEA Party” platform, but a number of political insiders suspected that was merely a ploy to unseat the incumbent far-right Governor Jim Gibbons (R) in the Republican primary. That hunch proved correct, as Sandoval began moving (back) to the center upon his first year in office.
Perhaps the biggest political test of Sandoval’s time at the Governor’s Mansion came after his epically historic landslide of a reelection in 2014. Since Sandoval not only won his own race, but also rode a “red tide” along with many other Republicans up and down the ballot, he could have taken that hard-right turn and governed more like the other Republican Governors who’ve won in swing states over the past eight years, such as Paul LePage (R-Maine), Pat McCrory (R-North Carolina), and Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin). Yet instead of pursuing bills to restrict ballot access, make it harder for transgender residents to use a restroom, deny health care to working poor families, or set up a more robust police state to target immigrant communities, Sandoval utilized the Republican majorities in the Legislature to… Raise tax and boost investment in public education??!!
Though Sandoval’s moderation fits well into a local tradition that includes such storied Nevada Republicans as Bill Raggio, Kenny Guinn, and Sue Wagner, his record provides a very stark contrast to the national Republican Party’s drift to the far-right, a drift that’s culminated with the election of President Donald Trump and the party embracing his nativist, xenophobic platform with little internal protest. And though Sandoval has been one of those few high-profile Republican elected officials to protest, his objections have largely fallen on deaf ears, including in his own home state.
How Laxalt’s rejecting Sandoval for Trump, and why Heller is following suit
In 2014, Brian Sandoval and Adam Laxalt (R) ran on the same ticket. They both endorsed each other. They both seemed to be on the same page in terms of how they wanted to shape Nevada’s state government. But in the past four year, Laxalt has continually zigged where Sandoval zagged, whether it was on taxes, education, health care, immigration, or other issues. And nearly every time they’ve parted ways, it’s been due to Laxalt wanting to please local GOP benefactor Sheldon Adelson and national Republican Party power brokers while Sandoval sought to stick to his moderate modus operandi.
When we consider this great divergence, why would be surprised by Sandoval’s ongoing refusal to endorse Laxalt to succeed him as Governor? Laxalt literally wants to undo Sandoval’s legacy, as he values a strong working relationship with Donald Trump over one with the outgoing Governor of this state.
What’s been more surprising, however, is the deterioration of the kinship between Sandoval and U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R). Unlike Laxalt, who moved here from Virginia earlier this decade to run for Attorney General, Sandoval and Heller have run in the same political circle for decades. And in June 2017, Heller proclaimed he couldn’t support what Sandoval opposed when he stated his initial opposition to Trumpcare. Yet in the weeks since, Heller has ditched Sandoval and hitched his political career to Trump’s bandwagon on everything from health care and immigration to foreign policy and Trump’s disturbingly cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to win Trump’s endorsement, survive the Republican primary, and keep the base with him in November.
For Sandoval’s legacy to remain safe, Republicans might have to lose their power in Carson City
Again, there was once a time when moderates at least held a great amount of sway in the Republican Party here in Nevada. It wasn’t unimaginable for a prominent Republican to support women’s right to reproductive health care. It wasn’t out of the question for Republican legislators to support raising taxes to keep state government running. It wasn’t even absurd for Republican Members of Congress to support comprehensive immigration reform and a less extreme approach to enforcing the law.
That time now feels so long gone, yet Brian Sandoval continues to serve as a reminder of what once was… At least for another five months. Though Sandoval continues to identify as a Republican, his accomplishments are most threatened by those in his own party who have disavowed his entire platform. Ironically, Sandoval’s legacy now depends on Nevada Democrats’ success in this upcoming election to remain wholly intact.