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Electoral Sweeps and Their Consequences: The Case of Nevada

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Cross-posted from Latino Decisions:

Is it possible for a politician to be too successful at the ballot box? This appears to be the case with Nevada’s Republican Governor Brian Sandoval. Thanks to a favorable political environment, low turnout among many traditional Democratic constituencies, and the inability of Nevada Democrats to recruit a serious challenger, Sandoval coasted to reelection last November.

In so doing, Sandoval was of the few Republican to make inroads with Latino voters. According to the 2014 Latino Decisions Election Eve Poll, Sandoval received the largest share of the Latino vote for any statewide candidate in the country (47 percent); an improvement of over 30 percentage points from his 2010 showing.

The lack of competition at the top of the ticket allowed Sandoval’s political team to devote their resources and energy to aid the election efforts of other Nevada Republicans. The end result was the GOP swept all six of the state’s constitutional office, including unexpected victories in the Attorney General and Secretary of State races, flipped both chambers of the Nevada Legislature from Democratic to Republican control, and knocked out a “safe” Democrat in the newly created 4th House district.

And that is when Sandoval’s headaches began.

Immediately after the election, it was revealed that Ira Hansen, the Assembly Speaker designate, had written columns for the Sparks Tribune targeting women, minorities, and homosexuals. The story drew national attention and obligated Sandoval and other top Nevada Republicans to publicly criticize Hansen. In response, Hansen stepped down as Speaker (he did not, however, resign his seat and instead will be the chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee). In announcing his decision Hansen claimed that he was the victim of “a carefully orchestrated attack” that was motivated not by his views, but because “the powers that be are planning a massive one billion dollar, tax increase and I stood in the way as Speaker.”

During Sandoval’s first term the Republicans’ minority status in the Nevada Legislature prevented legislation that might be perceived as anti-Latino or anti-immigrant from seeing the light of day. As a consequence, Sandoval was not obligated to take positions on controversial issues such as voter identification or Arizona SB1070-type measures. Instead and as I outlined in a prior blog post, Sandoval and other Nevada Republicans were able to work with legislative Democrats to implement a number of Latino policy priorities including driver authorization cards, funding for English Language Learners, and increased regulation of notarios.

Now, with Republicans in control of the Nevada Legislature, bills that are likely to alienate the Latino community have much better prospects of getting to the governor’s desk. Most notably, Barbara Cegavske, the newly elected Secretary of State has made voter identification legislation her priority and even went so far as to claim the Sandoval supported her bill (Cegavske also met with Sharron Angle to discuss the topic). However, as political journalist Jon Ralston reported, in an interview with the governor, Sandoval noted, “I never told her that I was going to support her bill.”

Earlier this week, Sandoval was blindsided by the actions of another Nevada Republican, Attorney General Adam Laxalt. According to media reports, Laxalt joined the Texas lawsuit opposing President Obama’s recent executive action providing relief from deportation for some unauthorized immigrants without consulting the governor. Sandoval’s office was forced to respond that the governor did not support legal action, but instead would like to see a legislative solution.

Despite Sandoval’s efforts to distance his from Laxalt’s actions, Nevada Democrats pounced and sought to tie the governor to the Attorney General. For instance, Nevada Democratic Party Chair Roberta Lange issued a statement saying that “If Brian Sandoval and Adam Laxalt had their way, thousands of Nevadans could face deportation and countless families would be at risk of being torn apart.” Immigration and progressive activists even orchestrated a “#DeportLaxalt” rally to demonstrate their disgust with Laxalt.

As if this was not enough, conservative activists are in the process of trying to recall at least three Republicans in the state legislature—including Speaker de jure John Hambrick—because they might support Sandoval’s call for tax increase to inject funding into Nevada’s woeful education system. Part of this revenue would increase funding for English Langue Learners by $50 million for the 2015­-2017 biennium, while another $50 million would be used to fund services for the state’s lowest performing schools located in the poorest, and often heavily minority, zip codes. As recall ringleader Assemblywoman Michele Fiore told the New York Times, “…we are going to kill it [the proposed tax increase].” Meanwhile in the same Times story, Democratic Senator Mo Denis noted, “I never thought I’d see the day when a Republican governor was proposing all the things we’ve been proposing for the last 20 years.”

Oh and did I forget to mention, that the Nevada Legislature is not even in session yet? Fortunately for Sandoval, that body is institutionally one of the weakest statehouses in the country and only meets every other year for 120 days. As the old adage goes, “elections have consequences” – just not necessarily the consequences that a governor elected with 71 percent of the vote might have expected.

David Damore is a Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions. He is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Senior Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.