Immigration signing in NV spotlights Latinos, kick-starts Sandoval vs. Reid in 2016

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Del Sol High School in Las Vegas isn’t just a backdrop to President Barack Obama’s signing of his executive action on immigration Friday, it also may have kick-started the 2016 senate race pitting outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid against Nevada’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval.

Reid’s presence at the signing is explained precisely by the Las Vegas Sun’s Friday morning headlines: “Why Obama’s speech may be unofficial launch of Reid’s re-election campaign,” and “Why Obama chose Las Vegas to rally public support for immigration plan.” The short answer is: Hispanic voters.

“Reid needs to begin this election process,” said David Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “and remind people that he’s been pushing the Dream Act while drawing that contrast with the Republicans.”

Del Sol, where 63 percent of the student population is Hispanic, serves as a reminder to Hispanic voters in the state that he’s got their back.

If Reid decides to run for a sixth term in 2016, which Damore and other believe is likely, it is Hispanic voters who are likely to determine his fate.  According to Fox News exit polling in 2010, Reid won 69 percent of the Hispanic vote.

A later Latino Decisions poll put the figure at more than 90 percent.

“My sense is he will run. He’s not going to go quietly after losing the Senate Majority leader position,” Damore said of the 74-year-old Senator. “The only caveat will be his health and his wife’s health.”

Over the last 30 years, the Hispanic population in Nevada has grown by more than 1,200 percent to around 753,000. More than a quarter of the state is Hispanic, which ranks fifth in the country, and Nevada has the highest proportion of undocumented immigrants of any U.S. state, according to a recent report by Pew Research.

Enter Sandoval. The popular governor is viewed by many as the best shot for Republicans to defeat Reid should he run.

Sandoval easily won re-election in November over Democrat Bob Goodman, who was not considered a serious challenger, by a 70-to-23 margin.

In the past, Sandoval has had difficulty getting Latino support, in part because he supported Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law and took a hard-line stance on immigration. As a result, he won the governor’s seat in 2010 despite only receiving 15 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Sandoval’s tone on immigration has softened substantially, and he pulled in a respectable 47 percent this time around.

If Sandoval could command those sorts of numbers, he would likely defeat Reid handily. A survey by Harper Polling over the summer showed Sandoval ahead of Reid 53 to 43 in a hypothetical race between the two.

Sandoval and Reid battled this year in what was seen as a proxy-campaign against one another over the state’s lieutenant governor’s post. The governor’s handpicked candidate, Republican Mark Hutchinson, won that election.

The victory frees Sandoval to run for the Senate in 2016. If he chooses runs, he will have to cede the governor’s mansion to the sitting lieutenant governor.

Longtime Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston noted in a blogpost from August, Sandoval “has a history of leaving jobs for better opportunities. He left the Assembly to become a state gaming commissioner. He left the Gaming Commission to run for attorney general. He left the federal bench, where Reid had helped install him in one of Nevada's most delicious historical ironies, to run for governor.”

Despite Sandoval’s popularity, many question whether the former federal judge will run.

“There are a number of factors why he would not,” Damore said. “For one, being governor is a really great job, and if you look at Sandoval’s career he’s never had a tough fight. He would get savagely attacked by Reid. It would be brutal. I think he has ambitions for vice president or going back to the federal bench.”

Ralston agrees with Damore. He wrote that the 51-year-old “loves being governor as much as any chief executive I have covered, and that’s saying something.”

He also noted that Sandoval’s advisers are very careful about keeping his image pristine, and it would likely take a hit in a bruising battle with Reid.

It doesn’t help also, Damore says, that 2016 is set to be a good year for Democrats in the state, with liberal ballot measures such as the legalization of marijuana, background checks for guns and same-sex marriage possibly taking center stage.

However, pressure from fellow Republicans impressed by his improved Hispanic voter numbers, might sway Sandoval to battle Reid. The sell, in fact, has already begun.

“I continue to believe Sandoval does not want to be a U.S. senator,” Ralston wrote recently, adding the warning, “History is littered with governors who went to Washington and regretted it.”