As Nevada Republicans struggle to rebuild the party, they've often looked to Gov. Brian Sandoval as their potential white knight, hoping his popularity could pull the state GOP out of its morass.
But consider the possibility that Sandoval might be more valuable to Nevada Republicans if he left the state.
The governor's name routinely surfaces as a potential vice presidential running mate: His approval rating is the envy of most politicians; his Hispanic heritage could appeal to a key voting bloc; and although his home state is small, it's also a crucial battleground in the presidential race.
If Sandoval did make the national ticket -- a job the governor has repeatedly said he would turn down -- would Nevada even remain a battleground? Or would the Obama campaign cede the Silver State to the popular Republican and pull up stakes?
Such a scenario would virtually ensure Republican victories up and down the ticket -- the coattail effect.
If Obama thought he couldn't win Nevada and packed up his turnout machine and left the state, the advantage in close races -- U.S. Sen. Dean Heller versus U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, U.S. Rep. Joe Heck versus Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, the races that will decide control of the state Senate -- would be thrown immediately to Republicans.
That possibility has been on the minds of some Democrats.
One Democratic consultant running a cadre of down-ticket races spent a fair amount of time gaming out the scenarios by which his clients could still win without Obama's turnout machine providing wind to the campaign's back.
But sources familiar with Obama for America's game plan say down-ticket Democrats have little to worry about on that front. Not only does the campaign have no plans to pull out of Nevada; Democrats are eager for the chance to run a national campaign against Sandoval.
"Are you kidding me? This guy has never taken a punch," one Democratic operative said. "We'd wipe the floor with him."
In boxing terms, Democrats think Sandoval has a glass jaw they could easily shatter.
In one respect, Democrats are right. Sandoval has yet to be tested in a high-profile, closely fought race. In 2010, he won handily against Democrat Rory Reid, besting him by double digits. Reid spent heavily on negative ads against Sandoval but never gained traction in an election cycle dominated by the battle waged by his father for the U.S. Senate.
In his first legislative session, Sandoval was saved from a difficult budget showdown with Democrats by the Nevada Supreme Court, which handed down a decision that became the catalyst for an easy agreement between the two sides on taxes.
Since then, Sandoval has remained one of the most popular politicians in the state, focusing most of his time on economic development and avoiding ugly political battles with an eye toward an easy re-election campaign in 2014.
That would all change if he were suddenly thrown into the national arena.
"He has not gone through a national vetting yet," the operative said, "and I think we can all say that is a brutal process."
In 2010, Reid had some difficulty making a case against Sandoval. But some Democrats say it could be given new life on a national stage.
Sandoval, for example, has jumped from one public service position to another, quitting before his full term was up. He left the Legislature to serve on the Nevada Gaming Commission, which he left to run for attorney general, which he left to become a federal judge, which he left to run for governor.
Some also question the timing of his decision to run for governor. Ethics watchdogs have raised concerns that he spoke with two political consultants about the possibility of running for governor before he resigned from the bench.
More recently, Sandoval antagonized conservative anti-tax activists by committing to extend a 2009 tax increase that he had previously promised to let expire.
Anti-tax lightning rod Grover Norquist last week called him the poster child for the need to demand candidates sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Norquist added that Sandoval should be disqualified from consideration as a vice presidential running mate.
"Certainly one could publicly announce that one should never be considered for the vice presidency as a Republican in ways less damaging to the taxpayers of Nevada," Norquist wrote. "They did nothing to deserve this."
Sandoval's allies laugh off any suggestion that the governor has a glass jaw.
"Part of the premise that he hasn't been punched or that he has a glass jaw would have to begin with there being something to hit him on," Pete Ernaut, one of Sandoval's advisers, said. "He has a fantastic record, both personally and professionally. There's not a lot to hit him on."
Mike Slanker who runs Sandoval's political operations, echoed the point.
"As for him not being vetted, that is hilarious," Slanker said. "He might just be the most vetted elected official in Nevada history. Remember how one becomes a federal judge?"
Slanker said Democrats' glee at the prospect of running a full-throttle campaign against Sandoval is an indication they see him as a formidable Republican power.
"Democrats in Nevada and elsewhere are concerned about his favorability, likability, crossover appeal, you name it," Slanker said. "And, again, they should be. He is without question the most popular and respected player in Nevada."
Still, a national campaign can sap a politician's popularity. Take Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the short-lived GOP presidential candidate whom Sandoval endorsed early in the race.
When he left Texas to run for governor, Perry enjoyed soaring popularity, especially within his party. After an unhappy tenure in the race, however, he returned with an approval rating that had sunk by double digits. In January, shortly after Perry dropped out, his home-state approval rating hit a 10-year low, the Austin American Statesman reported.
"At the end of the day, Sandoval wants to run for governor again," one operative said. "The idea that he is going to put himself through the wringer like that ... he's too smart a politician."
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