Sandoval seeks to play role of adult amid child's play in DC, sets off political sparring, speculation

Back in 2009, Brian Sandoval would have fit right in with the House Tea Party caucus.

He was no Yoho. But the then-GOP contender for governor was against all taxes at all times under any circumstances and treated Arizona’s SB 1070 as if it were holy scripture.  He was as right as right can be.

Now, having morphed into Sandoval 2.0 last year, the governor reinforced this week that the candidate who ran the first time and the governor who is about to coast to re-election are radically different. By making a succession of pointed comments about the Disaster in DC, Sandoval not only has cemented his status as a man in the middle but signaled a return to who he really is: The consummate pragmatist, whose straddle will often find him critics who say he’s mushy but whose goal is to be a manager not a fire-breather, an adult overseeing difficult problems, not children squabbling in a Capitol Hill playground.

He is careful and calculating, eager to please and determined to succeed, generally as unflappable as he is non-ideological. And he is immensely good at it, too, as his amiable manner and, yes, sunny outlook, make him the most popular governor in decades, perhaps not since the late Mike O’Callaghan, whose gruff but real touch is a contrast with Sandoval’s stiff but friendly demeanor.

Against a political backdrop of a cinch re-election and a possible challenged to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2016, Sandoval surely infuriated some Republicans this week with his comments while thrilling his potential foe in three years, who seized on the governor’s words and used them to lambaste congressional Republicans.

The Sandoval-Reid dynamic is fascinating, as is the clutching at his garments – is that a coattail you're grabbing or are you just happy to see me? – by other Republicans, including his friend, Sen. Dean Heller. But what interests me even more is what the governor, who has amassed immense power with his popularity, will choose to do with this impressive capital.

The easiest way to maintain stratospheric job approval ratings is to do little, to go along to get along, to maintain your viability in the national political chatter. What might be harder: Preparing an aggressive, bold 2015 agenda that could change the course of the state, much as one of his mentors, the late Gov. Kenny Guinn, tried but failed to do.

Sandoval signaled where he has arrived in the national media last week in a piece penned by the estimable Jonathan Martin. This is the key passage, as I noted then:

“The constant focus on Congressional and White House bickering especially annoys Republican governors who feel that the party can take back the White House in 2016 if they nominate one of their own and run not only against the Democrats, but also against Washington dysfunction, much as George W. Bush did in 2000. “’There’s a clear contrast there,’ Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada said of the difference between his fellow chief executives and Republicans in Washington. ‘People are craving leadership and craving problem-solvers.’”

That is not only how Sandoval sees himself; it’s clearly how people see him, judging by that poll. Sandoval clearly believes in competence over ideology, in the way Michael Dukakis said it but in a much more convincing way.

That has been clear throughout the first three-quarters of his term, with his steady hand a contrast to legislative dithering. Sandoval's only handicap has been those days of yore when he scampered to the right of then-Gov. Jim Gibbons and now has to keep finding asterisks – sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the equivocations and enabling – to attach to his no-new-taxes absolutism.

The governor's expansion of Medicaid and his erection of a health exchange indicated he was a different kind of Republican than the Capitol Hill Defund caucus. He is no Ted Yoho or Ted Cruz or….Dean Heller.

Then, Tuesday, he went even further, opening his mini-Cabinet meeting to the media and venting his spleen at the damage the DC dithering could reek upon Nevada’s fragile but slowly recovering economy. And then he issued a quote, which the Sun’s crack Political Editor Anjeanette Damon reported, which carried all the way to Washington:

“There are people that are at risk now and will be at more risk as this wears on,” Sandoval said. “They are all important,” Sandoval said of the programs that could be shuttered. “At no point do I want to be in a position where I have to pick between women, infants and children and those on unemployment benefits and those employed by the guard. For every person, all these things are extremely important.”

You can almost imagine the scene in the Reid war room:

Reidite No. 1: “Did you see what Sandoval said?”

Reidite No. 2 : “Yes! We can use that. No matter what he meant, it sounds as if he is attacking the Republicans.”

Reid: “Who says he isn’t? (Grins that Reid grin.)

Then came the Reid release praising Sandoval – Rep. Dina Titus followed suit– translating the governor's words into an attack on the Republicans for shutting down the government and for their piecemeal budgeting. I don’t believe Sandoval, not one to send subtle messages, intended to needle his GOP friends in DC. But the Democrats know good ammunition when it is presented to them, so Reid, Titus and the state Democrats fired away at Heller and Rep. Joe Heck.

Sandoval aide Mac Bybee tried to fire back on Twitter when Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman rubbed it in Tuesday evening:

And it got even better a short time later when the release came from Heller, after what I’m sure was this meeting inside his office:

Heller Operative No. 1: “Do you think Sandoval was taking a shot at us? That’s what Reid is saying.”

Heller: “Brian wouldn’t do that to me. And Harry is just being Harry.”

Heller Operative No. 2: “Just in case, let’s send out a release saying we agree with Brian, which will undercut Harry’s attacks and make us look good, too. It fits in with our No Labels, solve-DC-problems stuff we always put out.”

Heller: “Great. Any room for ‘No Budget No Pay’ here.”

Heller Operative No. 1: “Not this time, boss. But soon. Soon.”

And there it was: “Heller: I Share Governor Sandoval’s Concerns”

And this: “In Nevada, we solve problems when the Governor sits down and talks with legislative leaders. Let this be a lesson to President Obama and Congressional Leadership on both sides of the aisle for Democrats and Republicans to sit down, communicate, and come up with a solution,” said Senator Dean Heller.”

Forget that description of the Legislature is laughably inaccurate – Sandoval never really negotiated because he didn’t have to as lawmakers folded so quickly. And in the Legislative Building, Carson City polarization is now not much different than DC polarization. But the senator's message ] was simple: Heller loves Sandoval.

The senator wants to tether himself to the governor with the sky-high poll numbers while Reid wants to both woo him (I know, oxymoron alert: Reid charm) while warily eying him for 2016, ever-ready to flay him if need be.

On Wednesday morning, as Reid made the case yet again to end the shutdown as he blamed Republicans, the majority leader happily repeated Sandoval's quote and said: "Yesterday, the Republican governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, said the state is in danger of 'caatastrophic' consequences if the Republican shutdown lasts much longer." Of course Sandoval did not say "Republican shutdown," but Reid was on a roll, like John Belushi in "Animal House" and the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor. "Governor Sandoval rejected the piecemeal approach, being advocated by Republicans in Congress."

Oh? Cue Mac Bybee again.

That’s all political theater, but it still leaves me wondering: What does Sandoval want?

I don’t mean does he want to run for Senate – I doubt that, at least right now. I mean what does he want to do with all of this power?

He could use it in so many ways:

To try to kill the margin tax, which is very popular so he may be careful.

To try to leverage his position as a popular Hispanic governor into even more of a national figure, creating veep 2016 and possible Cabinet 2017 buzz.

Or he could try to wield it to make bold, sweeping changes to how state government works when it comes to education, infrastructure and social services.

Maybe all three?

Sandoval has no worries from right, only the nattering noodles of negativism in the state GOP and third-tier activists who talk and talk but never accomplish much. He can do pretty much whatever he wants to do now.

He can be sure of one thing: Whatever he does, Harry Reid will be watching.