Nevada Democrats must be tired of having their asses kicked in gubernatorial contests. By the time the 2014 election cycle is completed, 16 years will have passed since the Democrats had a sitting governor in the Silver State. But does a moderate Democrat from Clark County have a prayer of a chance, especially against a Republican incumbent with an approval rating approaching 60 percent? The answer: maybe.
Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak has stopped just short of tossing his fedora into the ring. In November he told reporters he would be “keeping his options open.” And last week during a TV interview with Jon Ralston, he reiterated that he is “not ruling anything out.” He told me and others that not a day goes by without someone asking him to run, adding that it is way too early for any kind of decision, which is exactly the right thing to say. Put it all together, though, and there seems to be no question that he is interested in taking things to the next level. Few would be surprised if Sisolak formed an exploratory committee later this year.
But does he have a shot?
The reality is that it would be very tough to unseat a strong incumbent. Gov. Brian Sandoval, dubbed “Governor Sunny” by Nevada pundits, is immensely popular, is advised by the smartest political operatives in the state and has managed to avoid any political missteps, even during one of the roughest economic periods in modern history. Sandoval will surely be able to raise as much money as he could possibly need, far more than any challenger. He is telegenic, has support in Clark County as well as in the North and the rurals, and has appeal that crosses party lines. Woe to any challenger willing to accept the Democratic nomination.
But there is a case to be made for the right Democrat, and it might be Sisolak. For one thing, the Republican Party in Nevada is an absolute mess. Democrats now enjoy a registration advantage of about 100,000 voters in Nevada. That’s a pretty good head start, crossover appeal or not. Sandoval loyalists have said the governor hopes to reshape the party in the next two years. He clearly has his work cut out for him.
Liberal-to-moderate Democrats from Clark County haven’t done well in statewide contests. Dina Titus, Rory Reid and Shelley Berkley come to mind. But Democrats from the southern end of the state can and do win statewide elections — Harry Reid, Ross Miller, Catherine Cortez Masto.
Sisolak starts off with one advantage over potential intra-party rivals: money. He easily won re-election to the County Commission and will be able to announce next week that he has a leftover campaign war chest of more than a million dollars. That’s a pretty big chunk of change, but is peanuts compared to what he should be able to raise now that he has been voted to chair the commission. The big money in Nevada is concentrated in Clark County, and all manner of corporate and business interests would be willing to donate the maximum amounts to any campaign that benefits the chairman of the most powerful regulatory board in the state. Sisolak would be able to raise an enormous amount of money, perhaps more than any other potential Democratic candidate.
I haven’t seen any approval ratings for Sisolak, but my guess is that he would score in the high 50s or 60s. The guy has carefully cultivated relationships with Nevada media, is always available for interviews — even about touchy subjects — and seems to get more TV airtime than some of the local anchor people. (He sure as hell gets more TV face-time than yours truly.) And he has championed causes and issues that have broad appeal. He led a charge that no other elected official has been willing to tackle — excesses within public employee unions. It was considered political suicide for anyone in local government to challenge firefighters, for instance, or cops. Sisolak screamed bloody murder about the blatant misuse of sick time and vacation hours by firefighters and has complained loudly about pay and benefits that are out of line with economic realities. Public employee unions most likely hate his guts, but this is an issue that will continue to resonate with voters, both Democrats and Republicans.
Sisolak has jumped directly into the middle of other third-rail-type issues — the contentious coroner’s inquest procedure, oversight of the perpetually troubled University Medical Center. He doesn’t duck the tough stuff. Again, that is a trait with crossover appeal.
Still, could he overcome the stigma attached to anyone from Las Vegas in the eyes of rural and northern voters? Let’s face it, any candidate hailing from our end of the state faces an uphill battle outside of Clark County. We may not recognize it, but the north-south, urban-rural split is very real in every town north of Coyote Springs.
But I would submit that Sisolak has an advantage that hasn’t been available to other candidates from Las Vegas.
In a nutshell, he has shown the balls to stand up against water czarina Pat Mulroy and her proposed rural water grab. I realize that this is an issue which approaches an obsession with a certain columnist and isn’t nearly as prominent with average folks in the Las Vegas Valley. But outside of Clark County, the proposed water grab is a very big deal. In White Pine County, for instance, a few commissioners who expressed a willingness to negotiate with the powerful Mulroy were unceremoniously booted from office. For rural residents, the water grab is a life-or-death issue. Sisolak is pretty much the only elected official who’s had the balls to criticize Mulroy and her water agencies for their profligate spending and short-sighted policies. A campaign pitch about Pat’s pipeline would have considerable appeal throughout the rest of the state.
It could also be argued that the water issue could become a game-changer here, too. We saw evidence of this last year when Mulroy announced that water bills for many local businesses would have to be increased by 300 percent or more to pay for infrastructure projects she had already green-lighted. At long last, business owners started paying attention to water issues. When they get around to focusing on the outrageous costs that still loom — in the neighborhood of $15 billion dollars for the pipeline project — and what this would do to water bills for businesses and homes, local voters might finally come to the conclusion that Sisolak reached long ago: This is a really bad idea. It has always been a bad idea, but other than Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, no elected official before Sisolak had the guts to stand up to Mulroy and the pro-growth power brokers who watch her back.
In the final analysis, it would still be an uphill fight. And it is a mystery which other Democrats might be willing to challenge Gov. Sandoval. (My guess: not many.) But Steve Sisolak will have plenty of money, as well as crossover appeal, media savvy and a lot more going for him — if he decides to run. That would be an interesting contest.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.