LAS VEGAS — Like most lieutenant governors, the No. 2 executive in Nevada doesn’t have much to do most days. So why are Harry Reid and Brian Sandoval so involved in the battle over the office this fall?
For both, the outcome in an obscure race could shape their political futures.
Sandoval, the state’s popular Hispanic governor, is the challenger national Republicans dream of should Reid seek a sixth-term in the U.S. Senate in 2016. Should Sandoval run, Nevada’s lieutenant governor would move into the Governor’s Mansion.
For a cautious, conflict-averse politician like Sandoval, challenging Reid, a former boxer, legendary political brawler and the Senate’s majority leader, might be worth the fight only if he knows a member of his own party would take his place should he run and lose.
Enter Mark Hutchison, a genial Republican state senator Sandoval recruited to run for lieutenant governor. He’ll face Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, 34, a former gang member who boasts Reid’s backing and an unorthodox, up-from-the-streets life story Democrats hope can mobilize Nevada’s hefty number of Hispanic voters.
“A lot of Nevadans are viewing it as a trial run for governor,” GOP consultant Robert Uithoven said.
Hutchison was wrapping up his first session as a state lawmaker last year when Sandoval approached him about the race, promising to lend the Las Vegas attorney his respected political and fundraising operation.
“I’ve got a great advantage in having Brian Sandoval want to be partners with me,” said Hutchison, who represents a majority-Democratic district in the city’s suburbs.
Hutchison was also one of several Republican lawmakers in Nevada who voted to urge Congress to pass legislation allowing many of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to eventually become citizens. Republicans hope that with the upbeat, well-liked Sandoval at his side, Hutchison could draw down the outsized Hispanic support for Democrats that allowed Reid to win a tight re-election race in 2010 and Obama to twice carry the state.
“One of the problems that we have with Republicans is that they don’t approach us. He has done that,” Otto Merida, president of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce, said of Hutchison.
He faces a candidate with a compelling backstory in Flores, who said she began to mull a run for lieutenant governor last year — with Reid’s support.
“Harry talks about her so constantly,” Vice President Joe Biden said at a recent campaign rally. “I thought she was his daughter.”
One of 13 children raised primarily in northeastern Las Vegas, Flores last year revealed during a statehouse debate about a sex education bill that she had an abortion at age 16. She regularly speaks about serving nine months in a juvenile detention center after leading police on chase in a stolen car through east Las Vegas, and how she got a second chance from her parole officer after getting into a fight with her often-absent mother.
“I was always the smart-assed kid who was telling cops I knew my rights,” she recently told a group of Hispanic high school students at a leadership conference. “I really enjoyed the law and thought maybe one day I could be a lawyer.”
She graduated from the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ law school in 2010 and was elected to the state legislature that fall. Becoming governor isn’t something, she said, she was thinking about when she got into the race for lieutenant governor. She acknowledges now it’s a possibility and said her guess is that Sandoval intends to challenge Reid, based on his intense backing of Hutchison.
“There’s something to be said for the amount of speculation he’s been fueling,” she said.
For their part, Hutchison and Flores are campaigning contrasting their plans for what’s a largely ceremonial office.
Both oppose a ballot measure to increase corporate taxes to fund education but talk about the possibility of finding more funds elsewhere. Hutchison says he wants to help Sandoval continue the state’s rebound from the depths of the recession and diversify its economy beyond gambling and tourism. Flores says she wants to focus on education.
There are questions about whether Reid, 76, may choose to retire, or if Sandoval will ultimately decide to pass on a challenge that would divide the state. But should they run, the lieutenant governor’s race will pale in comparison to what would be an epic political contest between Reid and Sandoval.
“The people who back Reid back Sandoval,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.