Sandoval protects himself by backing Hutchison, but don't take anything for granted

At 11:43 AM on Monday, state Sen. Mark Hutchison tweeted his entrance into the lieutenant governor's race. Exactly 10 minutes later, Gov. Brian Sandoval tweeted his endorsement.

Why, it’s almost as if the governor had been expecting it. Because he was.

Hutchison is Sandoval’s handpicked choice for lieutenant governor, the first time since Richard Bryan in 1986 that a chief executive had so obviously tapped an upwardly mobile pol on the shoulder and asked him to be his de facto running mate. Governors and lieutenant governors don’t run on a ticket in Nevada, but Sandoval and Hutchison will be linked in the same way Bryan and his pick, Bob Miller, were in 1986.

That, of course, immediately gave rise to speculation that Sandoval already has decided to run for Harry Reid’s U.S. Senate seat in 2016, mimicking Bryan's preparation to run against GOP U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht almost three decades ago. But I don’t think so.

Bryan clearly was all but in the Senate race even as he ran for re-election in 1986. Sandoval has not yet decided, sources close to him tell me, what he wants to do should he win a second term in November 2014.

I’m not sure Sandoval even wants to be a senator. But if Hutchison wins, it certainly would give the governor the freedom to do something else – run against Reid or for an open seat or seek a federal appointment (first Nevadan as cabinet secretary to add to all of his other pioneering endeavors?) in 2016. That’s why Sandoval urged Hutchison to seek the job – to keep open his options, to have the ability to leave the state in capable hands of the same party, to simply have someone in the No. 2 slot who is reliable. And Sandoval arguably got the best guy he could to run.

Why? Let me count the ways:

1.    Finding someone who knows him, worked with him or lobbied him who doesn’t like Hutchison is more difficult than finding a recent photo of Miley Cyrus in which she looks like a normal human being.

2.    Hutchison is an accomplished lawyer, a family man and as smart as they come in Nevada politics – no, that is not a backhanded compliment.

3.    He has a nonpareil work ethic, is relentlessly personable and will thrive on the statewide campaign trail – Sandoval better hope no one wonders why Hutchison is not at the top of the ticket.

There’s one more quality, too, about Hutchison that almost leaps out at you. I’ve known Hutchison since his days on the state Ethics Commission a decade ago and you could almost smell it back then: Ambition.

I doubt Hutchison, who seemed to thrive in the policy hurly burly of Carson City, would run for a job that has grown more meaningless (thanks to Sandoval yanking economic development) if he didn’t think it was leading to a higher rung. Maybe he hopes Sandoval will leave in 2016. Or maybe Hutchison has visions of taking on Reid himself.

No matter. Hutchison knows this is a no-lose proposition for him, one he can’t pass up despite the stultifying boredom of having to preside over the state Senate (although he does have the same overly solicitous gene that Brian Krolicki possesses).

If Hutchison doesn’t win, he’s still an up and coming state senator with a shot at leadership. If he wins, he’s considered a leading candidate for attorney general, governor, Congress or the U.S. Senate. Offer he couldn't refuse? Indeed.

Beyond the Sandoval endorsement, the rest of the choreography has been remarkable, too. Other potential 2014 candidates are endorsing him, I’m told, including Las Vegas Councilman Bob Beers, state Sens. Barbara Cegavske and Ben Kieckhefer.

This doesn’t mean Hutchison is a shoo-in, although I made him the favorite to become lieutenant governor a few weeks ago (as premium subscribers to this site know). But I’m not sure the Democrats are as efficient as the Republicans are at clearing primary fields. (Hutchison could still draw a foe. But Sandoval’s endorsement will dissuade most, if not all.)

I suspect Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, seen by strategists as a high-risk, high-reward contender, is in the race. She is out raising money – and I doubt it’s for re-election. But others have been nosing around, including Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins (not taken seriously) and Henderson Councilwoman Debra March (relatively unknown quantity).

The Democrats also have that huge statewide registration advantage – just under 100,000. And unless the A & W store gets cranked up soon, Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn can’t change that too much before November 2014. (Even if the Democratic advantage were only 60,000 – and I doubt that happens – that’s still quite large and will make any statewide Republican candidate work for his or her supper.)

Hutchison is not without potential vulnerabilities, either. The Democrats will hope to exploit his votes against background checks and gay marriage. And I’m sure his long list of legal clients will be fertile territory.

With the governor’s race a quixotic one for the Democrats, they will pour all they can into electing a second-in-command so as to dissuade Sandoval should he want to challenge Prince Harry in 2016. And that means the newly minted frontrunner for lieutenant governor is about to get the sincerest form of flattery there is in Nevada politics: My guess is Team Reid & Co. are opening up – or augmenting – an opposition research file on Sen. Hutchison, the likes of which he has never seen or imagined.

(Pic from