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The Lowden Scenario

“Endorsements don’t mean anything”, Tom Letizia told me while slicing up a chunk of broccoli. “Not newspaper endorsements, not endorsements from other politicians. None of them.”

Letizia knows a bit about how to overcome negative press for his candidates and how to minimize the importance of prominent endorsements for his opponents.

“You remember when Oscar Goodman was first running for mayor? The state’s largest newspaper wrote him off, made fun of him, endorsed Anybody But Oscar, “ he reminded me. “In that race, one of the other candidates was the anointed guy, had all of the endorsements from other political players. None of it made any difference.”

Letizia is best known as an ad man, a polished pro who’s pitched everything from new cars to dine-out memberships. People tend to forget that he’s had success as a political advisor and campaign manager. He not only managed Oscar Goodman’s stunning victory for Las Vegas mayor, but also the subsequent Goodman campaigns in which the world’s happiest mayor won ever-larger landslides. Letizia was at the campaign helm when current mayor Carolyn Goodman decided to succeed her husband at City Hall.

“And I recently helped a businessman who had never run for office get elected as the mayor of El Paso. His name is Oscar too, and he ran against a longtime councilman who was such a heavy favorite that the race was a foregone conclusion,” Letizia said as he stabbed another piece of vegetable. “The anointed guy had all of the endorsements, all of the money, and a dream team of political consultants.”

Letizia says his El Paso client won because of carefully-crafted TV ads that helped to define both candidates. The same tactic worked for Oscar Goodman, and for Carolyn Goodman, and Letizia thinks it will work for his newest client/candidate, Sue Lowden, who hopes to be elected as Nevada’s next lieutenant governor.

It isn’t often that the race for lieutenant governor is the most interesting on the Nevada ballot, but that could be the case in 2014. Under one possible scenario, popular Republican governor Brian Sandoval would win re-election in 2014 and then run against Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 2016. The only way Sandoval would be able to step down mid-term is if he has a fellow Republican sitting as the lieutenant governor. It is highly unlikely he would run against Reid if it means the governor’s job would then be handed to a Democrat.

Sandoval hasn’t said whether he wants to challenge Reid. He hasn’t even won re-election yet, though many think that’s a foregone conclusion. But it is telling that the governor, along with other GOP heavyweights, have already given their stamp of approval to state Sen. Mark Hutchison, who was first elected to office last November but is widely viewed as a rising star within the party. If Hutchison could win the lieutenant governor’s job, Sandoval would be free to run against Reid.

So how in the world is Sue Lowden going to buck the leaders of her own party and take on the anointed candidate, especially when the stakes are so high for the GOP? Lowden is not without baggage of her own, including the disastrous campaign of 2010 when she was the decisive frontrunner for U.S. Senate and the candidate given the best chance to beat Harry Reid. Instead, she said some dumb things, failed to fix the problem, and lost to ultra-conservative Sharron Angle in the primary.

The way Letizia figures it, Lowden can overcome her various challenges, win the primary, and be elected. Here’s why:

One is that the “camera loves her”, Letizia opines. “She’s a former TV newswoman who knows how to use the medium and there will be a notable contrast between her and her opponent on the air.” (Disclosure—I worked with Sue back in the 1980’s at KLAS and heartily agree that she looks great on the air and knows how to play to the camera.)

Two, Lowden has already hit the ground running. Letizia says she has fire in the belly, is spending long hours each day boning up on the issues and is also working hard on fundraising. He thinks her experience in the tourism and gaming industries make her a natural fit for the office.

Third is money. The U.S. Senate primary cost about $20 million. The state primary will cost about $2 million. Letizia notes that Lowdens have many friends in the gaming industry who will contribute, and that the Lowdens will likely dip into their own pockets.

Fourth is the turnout. Letizia figures the real race is in the primary. Turnout could be in the 15-20 percent range, which means die-hard conservatives are the voters most likely to show up to cast ballots. Letizia thinks Lowden will have much broader appeal to the ultra-conservatives who make up such a large percentage of primary voters. In particular, he thinks Lowden will do well in the rural counties where her opponent’s support for mining taxes could be exploited.

Fifth is name recognition. Initial polling shows that Lowden is a much better-known commodity than Hutchison, who is barely a blip in some parts of the state.

There are problems with the Lowden scenario. For one thing, some of those conservative voters who will turn out on primary day are still mad at Lowden, in particular the Ron Paul wing of the party, which still feels that Lowden stacked the deck back when she was state GOP chairperson.

There are also Republican voters who remember the “chickens for checkups” fiasco that became the deciding factor in the loss to Angle. Instead of backing away from the remark, maybe taking a good-humored jab at herself, Lowden doubled down on the idea of bartering goods in exchange for medical care. Letizia thinks Lowden’s previous campaign team screwed up big time and could have defused the whole thing but didn’t. This time, it will be different, he vows.

No matter how one looks at it, this could be the most interesting campaign for lieutenant governor in Nevada history. The stakes could hardly be higher. Oh, and before we cede the race to the winner of the GOP primary, we should remember that the Democrats will likely pour money and resources into the race as well. From what I hear, Harry Reid has been known to dabble in Nevada political races now and then, especially a race that might determine whether he gets to stay in Washington or not. Just ask Sharron Angle about that.

George Knapp is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.