The 2006 Nevada governor's race is one Goodman shy of becoming an epic ... what, drama? farce? adventure? pain in the ass? Even without Oscar, the race recalls the zany scramble of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, except that large issues about the state's future are at stake. The field is crowded with candidates announced, not yet announced, presumed and hoped-for. The entertainment factor has been high, thanks mostly to the candid stylings of will-he-won't-he candidate Jim Rogers, who, in between launching laser-guided sound bites about the race, manages to run the university system. He's been by turns aggressive (dismissing the intelligence of GOP front-runner Jim Gibbons) and passive (letting other candidates run endless mental simulations of his impact on the race, should he run). The current governor, Kenny Guinn, has added to the fun by trying to recruit any warm body to run against Gibbons.
Meanwhile, the media stands off to the sides, making hopeful shadow puppets in the shapes of Rogers and Goodman.
It promises to be a rugby scrum, all right, prompting The Lahontan Valley News to run an editorial headlined "Get ready for a year of gubernatorial rancor," which concluded with the simple hope that when the candidates come stumping into town, "hopefully, they'll mind their manners." The Lahontan Valley News sounds like no fun.
To help get an early bead on the wackiness, the Weekly presents a short primer of a campaign in its infancy:
SO, WHO ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Bob Beers: Republican, state senator and CPA.
Lorraine Hunt: Republican, lieutenant governor.
Dina Titus: Democrat, Senate minority leader and political science professor at UNLV.
UNDECLARED BUT PRESUMED TO BE ENTERING SOON
James Gibson: Democrat, Henderson mayor. Recently stepped down as head of the troubled Las Vegas Monorail system.
Jim Gibbons: Republican, Nevada congressman.
Richard Perkins: Democrat, Assembly speaker and deputy chief of the Henderson Police Department.
Undeclared, status uncertain
Jim Rogers: Independent, owner of Sunbelt Broadcasting and chancellor of the University and Community College System of Nevada.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: WHO WILL GAMING SUPPORT?
"It's too soon to say," says veteran political operative Dan Hart. That's the short version.
The somewhat longer version, according to pundit Jon Ralston (Las Vegas Sun, the Ralston Report, Face to Face with Jon Ralston) is that A.) there's no such thing as "gaming"—in the sense of a monolithic, single-minded entity—anymore; and B.) that gaming has no clear idea who to support.
"Gaming is balkanized, in a way," he says. "What Steve Wynn does, Gary Loveman or Terry Lanni don't necessarily do." The conventional wisdom, he says, had the industry pretty solidly behind Perkins—six or eight months ago. But after what was widely perceived to be his lackluster performance in the 2005 Legislature, Perkins lost some momentum. Meanwhile, gaming saw the polling that put Gibbons well ahead of any contenders. Gibson, too, is an attractive candidate for gamers, and they can't ignore Titus.
The upshot: Gaming will have to spread its money around. With no consensus candidate, "This may be the first non-anointment election I've ever seen," Ralston says, amazement in his voice.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE FORCES SHAPING THE CAMPAIGN?
There's definitely a boy-boy-girl dynamic on both sides of the race. Barring latecomers, the Democrats will likely field two moderate white males—Perkins, Gibson—and a woman, Titus. "Given that setup, Titus might have an advantage," says Hart. "But that could change tomorrow."
The Republican race looks remarkably similar, with an accomplished woman candidate (Hunt) facing two men (Gibbons, Beers). The dynamics here are a bit less distinct. Gibbons and Beers both speak the lingo of fiscal conservatism; Hunt is more moderate but her candidacy is making very little splash.
With Gibbons and Beers making an issue of taxes and the breadth of state government, whatever latent resentment Nevadans feel about the tax hikes enacted by the 2003 Legislature will almost certainly play a role. This will prove especially true if anti-tax measures like TASC (Tax and Spending Control, the new name for the taxpayers' bill of rights that Beers, among others, has been pushing) and Assemblywoman Sharron Angle's Proposition 13-style initiative make the ballot. That would drag Gibbons and Beers' fiscally conservative agenda to the foreground—and force the other candidates to take a position on it. While the GOP candidates would be on familiar ground, it would almost certainly force a spine-check on the Dems. Articulating a liberal response—this is the fastest-growing state in the union, it's not California and these measures would have a devastating impact on education and social services—would be politically risky.
"My big fear," says liberal political observer Hugh Jackson of the website Las Vegas Gleaner, "is that the state could go backward." Under Guinn, there was modest progress toward making public education a funding priority. "Whatever problems Nevada has, too much state government is not one of them."
WHAT ROLE WILL NATIONAL ISSUES—YUCCA MOUNTAIN, GIBBONS' SUPPORT FOR BUSH—PLAY IN THE ELECTION?
Not much. With nothing new to say about Yucca Mountain, a candidate can't really use that issue to further define him- or herself to the electorate. And attacking Gibbons for supporting a war president—even as polls show declining support for Iraq—would be a weak swing, unlikely to convert anyone not already converted.
On the other hand, a few national issues, like Social Security and Medicare—Gibbons voted in favor of legislation that prevented the program from negotiating for discount drug prices—could have a bit of reverb in the race. But it will mostly be decided by local concerns: the economy, managing growth.
IS THERE A PLAUSIBLE SCENARIO BY WHICH TITUS WINS?
Yes: She airs an ad of herself shooting something. Rural Nevadans rejoice, flock to polls.
"I think she needs an assist from God," Ralston says. "And I don't mean Jim Rogers." He does mean this: She's got a lot of obstacles:
Can she raise enough money?
She's a woman, which wouldn't matter in a perfect world—but this is Nevada. "This is still a fairly sexist state," Ralston says. A candidate packing estrogen will find the going extra tough, to which we can tack on this:
She's a Democrat in a red state.
Adding all that up, will power brokers and primary voters decide to back Gibson or Perkins because they seem more "electable" against front-runner Gibbons?
Most observers think Titus will have to broaden her appeal by becoming more centrist, which might explain her notable quote that government's job is to "educate the children, lock up the bad guys and promote the common good, then get out of the way and let people run their own lives." That prompted UNR poli-sci prof Eric Herzik to rightly observe in the Sun, "[She] sounds like a Republican, almost."
She could conceivably win the primary simply by being herself. Wisecracking and media-friendly, she's got more charisma than both opponents combined and will probably be the candidate of choice among lefties and women.
But, despite her dedicated courting of the cow counties, it's unclear how well she'll play north of Las Vegas. Say she wins the primary. In the general election, as liberal woman from evil, water-sucking Las Vegas, she'd have to boom out of Southern Nevada with a huge vote lead to compensate for a tough battle in the sticks.
This is where an independent Rogers campaign could come in handy for Titus. Under this scenario, Rogers, as a breakaway Republican, might siphon votes from Gibbons, leaving just enough daylight for Titus to scramble to Carson City. Then again, as a party defector and significant donor to Democrats, he might not cut that deeply into the GOP base as Titus needs.
"I'm not saying she can't win," Ralston says. "She just needs everything to align perfectly."
ASIDE FROM CASTING HIM IN THE PEROT ROLE, WHAT ELSE DOES A ROGERS INDEPENDENT CANDIDACY MEAN?
"What it does is dry up a lot of money," Hart says. Rogers has a lot of friends in the business sector, the sort of folks who regularly fund political campaigns. Will they close their wallets to opponents of Rogers?
DOES KENNY GUINN HAVE ANY LINGERING EFFECT ON THIS RACE?
You mean, beyond his not-so-stealthy ABG—anyone but Gibbons—campaign? Under the seemingly worthy guise of promoting options in the primary, the soon-to-be-ex governor has tried to recruit some candidates (Jim Rogers, Bob Cashell) and embraced another (Bob Beers) with whom he's butted heads in the past ... all in order to stick it to Gibbons, whom he reportedly resents for vocally opposing Guinn's tax plan in 2003. The governor's recruiting has borne little tangible fruit. Rogers remains undeclared but did switch parties. Cashell ultimately declined to run. By showing his obvious reluctance about Gibbons, instead of engaging in the pro forma party solidarity, Guinn might put a hairline crack in the façade of inevitability that Gibbons' camp has strived to create.
Still, goes one line of thinking, rank and file Republicans care very little about what Guinn has to say. Some of his proposals—particularly the vast tax increase he supported in 2003—have smacked a little too much of Democratic thinking.
On the other hand, should he, say, embrace a Rogers' candidacy, casual voters might think, Hey, if the old guv likes him, he must be OK. That could be worth something at the ballot box.
WHICH PARTY HAS MORE TO LOSE?
Democrats. The party could barely muster a quixotic Joe Neal campaign against Kenny Guinn in the last gubernatorial nonrace. At the moment they occupy exactly no constitutional offices in a Republican-leaning state. Only with Guinn term-limited out of the governor's mansion do they have a clean shot.
"This is a threshold election for them," Ralston says. "If they don't win any constitutional offices now, they're probably shut out for another eight years."
Not to mention that winning the governorship would help dispel the perception that the party—which hasn't put up much of a fight against Sen. John Ensign or Congressman Jon Porter—is listless and leaderless. In fact, seeing the Democrats expend three good candidates on the governor's race has Jackson wondering, Can't one of these people run for something else? "Ensign's going to get a free ride and they can't find anyone to run against Porter. It's too bad Perkins or Gibson didn't think about something else."
Hart argues that in Nevada, elections "are not decided on party lines. Most have to do with the individual, not the party." Predicting that the Democrats will capture at least one constitutional office, Hart says the election will in some sense be a win for the party, since it'll be ahead of where it is now.
CAN BEERS REALLY WIN OR IS HE POSITIONING HIMSELF FOR SOMETHING ELSE?
Contrary to those who think Beers is building recognition for a future campaign, Ralston says he's dead serious. "He thinks he sees a weakness in Gibbons and thinks that gives him a shot." Beers is a natural politician—smart, driven, with a sure sense of how to play such ideas as slashing state government or breaking the school district into an archipelago of mini-districts. "You can never count him out," Hart says, noting Beers' defeat of longtime state Sen. Ray Rawson. Some hard-edged campaigning and a tailwind from anti-tax initiatives could carry him a bit. He might be helped a little by his likely opponent, Gibbons, who, despite polling well, is seen by some as having significant liabilities. "Gibbons is not ready for prime time," Jackson argues.
Still, Beers has little statewide name recognition. Gibbons, meanwhile, has money, institutional support and experience running races that, while not quite statewide, are broader than a state senate district. Beers will have to piggyback on the anti-tax measures; Gibbons, with his Education First initiative and other efforts, can claim a history of fiscal action.
"Beers has nothing to lose," Ralston says. "If he doesn't win, he goes back to the Legislature as, at the very least, vice chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee." So why not make a bid for the big chair?
HOW MUCH DOES THE CRUISE-SHIP ISSUE HURT PERKINS?
This early in the race, it'll take more than an ill-advised vacation with lobbyists to knock out a real contender. But if his opponents aren't already scripting the commercials about how the cruise—which he got at a discount from Cox Communications, a legislative supplicant—casts doubt on his judgment, they soon will be.
Ralston characterizes the issue this way: "It's like stubbing your toe when you're already bleeding from the torso." Perkins' bigger issue is his stalled momentum after his null performance in the Legislature. "He needed some good news," Ralston says. "This wasn't it."
But Perkins still has the ability to raise significant money, so it's too soon to write him off.
WHY ISN'T ANYONE TALKING ABOUT LORRAINE HUNT?
Because no one thinks she can win. She has little name recognition and in Nevada, the office of lieutenant governor hasn't exactly been a springboard to the big time. (Don't bother mentioning Harry Reid; there were a couple of lost races between his stint at lieutenant governor and his election to Congress.)
THE OSCAR QUESTION
"If he enters the race, I think he becomes the immediate front-runner," Ralston says. Everyone agrees on that. But he doesn't think Goodman will do it. That seems pretty accurate, too.
Who knows? Goodman has said he's happy being mayor, he'll be eligible for one more term, and it's hard to say how his ungovernable impulses will play in the north. In general, the more time that passes without him in the race, the more likely it is he won't jump in. Unless he jumps in at the last minute. "Anyone who says with any certainty what Oscar is going to do," Hart says, "doesn't actually know."