Quick: Name a young Hispanic Republican swing-state governor with a record of reducing the size of government and cutting spending while passing education reforms like ending teacher tenure and establishing merit pay, all with a Democratic legislature.
Stumped? Here’s another hint: he’s a former state attorney general and federal judge who left a lifetime appointment to the bench to successfully challenge a scandal-prone Republican incumbent.
Meet Brian Sandoval, the 49-year old governor of Nevada. He’s a rising star in the Republican Party who just might offer the GOP a one-man antidote to what ails them electorally.
But there’s a reason he isn’t yet a household name in political circles or on every presidential candidate’s VP short list, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: Sandoval is pro-choice.
I sat down with Sandoval on the afternoon of the Nevada caucus in a cavernous meeting room off the floor of the Las Vegas convention center. Engaging, with an understated confidence, the governor is eager to talk about his record since being elected in 2010.
“Fiscally I’m very conservative … others say that I’m socially moderate,” Sandoval says. “As a former judge I listen to all the facts, and I make a decision as to what I believe is in the best interest of the state.”
His state is now spending half a billion dollars less than it did last year. “That’s the first time in Nevada’s history from one year to another that we spent less money,” Sandoval says with practiced pride. “We consolidated over 20 state agencies, we eliminated positions and made some tough decisions.”
Sandoval also aims to cut red tape to help his state grow its way out of its 12.4 percent unemployment rate and “make Nevada the most business-friendly state in the country,” having recently announced the repeal of 654 outdated or overlapping regulations.
But in contrast to the current conservative orthodoxy that the best thing government can do for the economy is to get out of the way, Sandoval believes in a limited but activist role for government that betrays a bit of an inner policy wonk. “I have to ensure that I’m being a good steward of the monies but also providing the right type of services that meet peoples’ needs,” he says.
For example, Sandoval disagrees with Mitt Romney’s contention that the government should allow foreclosures to occur, and let the market seek its own level. Instead, Nevada has put in place a foreclosure-mediation program that Sandoval believes could be “a model for the country” and “requires people that are going into foreclosure to meet with their lender to see if they can work things out.” The banks, not surprisingly, are unhappy with this solution.
The other issue he’s dedicated himself to is education reform. His mother is a teacher, and his kids all attended public schools in Reno, but Nevada public education has been an area of declining achievement despite increasing spending.
“It’s not how much you spend, it’s how you spend it,” Sandoval says. “We have been putting a lot of money into education in the state of Nevada, and it’s gotten us to 50th in the country in graduation rates. We needed more accountability in our system. My model for a lot of my changes [is] what was accomplished by Governor Bush in the state of Florida.”
Sandoval has scored some impressive early wins, ending teacher tenure and instituting merit pay despite a massive public campaign opposing it by the teachers’ union. Throughout our conversation, he returns to two bits of unfinished business: ending social promotion and making school choice available for kids in failing public schools.
All of which brings us to one of the most vexing questions facing Washington: how to pass ambitious legislation with divided government in an age of hyperpartisanship.
Sandoval chalks up his successes on that front to “personal diplomacy”: “I met individually with all 63 members of the legislature … I had to make the case with regard to the education reforms that the status quo has gotten to where we are, which was at the bottom, and that we needed to do something aggressive and do something different. So it didn’t come easily but I think it came because … I worked with people and they know that I think it’s in the best interest of our state.”
It’s a similar refrain to what I heard interviewing Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey—reform legislation can pass a Democratic legislature if there is determined personal outreach from the executive.
One political misstep Sandoval did make was his early endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, which he’s unapologetic for doing. “He’s a personal friend of mine,” Sandoval says. “When I came off the federal bench and attended my first Republican governors meeting he reached out to me and was very supportive … loyalty and friendship all should stand for something.” Since Perry dropped out, Sandoval has declined to endorse anyone else, while assuring party leaders that the ultimate nominee will have his full support.
One bit of advice the national Republican Party needs is how to connect with Hispanic voters. Sandoval doesn’t play the identity-politics game and he expresses no hostility to the neighboring Arizona’s controversial illegal-immigration law. “I’m a strong supporter of states’ rights to do what they need,” he says. “So they had to do what they had to do. And yes, there was a lot of backlash with regard to that.”
Sandoval’s political prescription centers on Republicans showing a more active interest in the Hispanic community, particularly on the economic and education fronts: “Get away from some of the divisive [issues] and get to the fact that, at least in our state, the Hispanic population has the highest amount of unemployment,” counsels Sandoval. “I think that’s where the candidates need to go is to show that they can provide for better education, provide for better economy and get people to work.”
Given his executive and judicial experience and his strong fiscal-conservative record as the popular Hispanic governor of a general election swing state, the lack of talk about him as a potential vice presidential candidate seems to come from the unofficial but strictly enforced pro-life litmus test that has been imposed on all GOP nominees and their veep picks since 1976.
“I respect a woman’s ability to make that decision for herself,” Sandoval says directly. “My approach has always been to be up front with the people of this state and so when I get asked about it I’m very blunt and clear and it makes some people unhappy.”
This simple statement qualifies as courageous given the current composition of the GOP. After all, pro-choice Republicans are now all but an endangered species as opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest emerges as the new party standard.
Good people can and do disagree on this most difficult and personal issue, but the rightward rush of the Republican Party has drummed out any hint of dissent, especially when it comes to national offices. If a man like Brian Sandoval finds himself effectively blocked from national office for failing that litmus test despite his record of conservatism in so many other areas, the party is painting itself into a corner.
Sandoval says that while he is “humbled” when his name is occasionally mentioned as a possible ticketmate, he adds that “I think I have the best job in the country.” It is the polite political response. But he has been a young man in a hurry and given the need for the Republican Party to reach out to the center-right and rebuild the big tent, it would not surprise me if he were to be a Supreme Court nominee or drafted as a GOP presidential candidate sometime in the future.
But asked if the GOP will grow beyond the pro-life litmus test that seems to stand between him and top-tier status, he gives a slight shrug: “I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.”