Politics

Nevada's Comeback Kid?

Almost from the day he stepped into office, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons has been widely unpopular. But somehow, he still has a chance to win...
by | May 1, 2010

Almost from the day he stepped into office, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons has been widely unpopular. But somehow, he still has a chance to win a second term in November.

Gibbons, a Republican, has suffered from personal, economic and political problems. His troubled marriage and messy divorce played out in public. During his tenure, Nevada's unemployment rate increased from 4.4 percent to more than 13 percent. And Democratic and Republican legislators have, at times, simply ignored him, preferring to negotiate their own deals and then override the governor's vetoes.

The result is that Gibbons has spent much of his tenure rivaling the likes of Rod Blagojevich for the title of America's least popular governor. Last summer, one poll indicated that only 14 percent of Nevada voters thought he was doing an "excellent" or "good" job. Insiders doubted he'd bother running for a second term.

If Gibbons were to be replaced, GOP strategists want to replace him with a fellow Republican. They recruited Brian Sandoval, whose career includes stints as a federal judge, a state attorney general and a state legislator. He's also a Hispanic in a state with a burgeoning Hispanic population-and in a party that's desperate for Latino leaders.

Gibbons, however, decided to run. So the June 8 primary pits Sandoval, the rising star, against Gibbons, the political pariah. The strange thing? Gibbons might win.

For now, polls show Sandoval with a lead. But thanks to the governor's opposition to tax increases, he maintains a reservoir of goodwill from fiscal conservatives-though that reputation was bruised a bit this year when Gibbons signed a budget with fee hikes. While Sandoval also is positioning himself as a foe of tax increases, he is vulnerable on the subject due his role as attorney general in a 2003 tax dispute. A third credible Republican, North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon, could split the anti-Gibbons vote with Sandoval, allowing the governor to slip into the general election.

If Gibbons can get by Sandoval and Montandon, he'll face a potentially flawed Democrat. Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is the son of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's facing the fight of his political life as he runs for re-election. It's not clear that Nevada voters are willing to support one Reid for office this fall, much less two. Polls show a competitive race between Reid and Gibbons.

Still, Gibbons is probably an underdog in both the primary and general election, but informed observers are no longer ruling out the possibility that he could win. "If you're asking me if that's possible, the answer is yes," says Jon Ralston, a Nevada political analyst. "I'm not saying that it's likely."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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