CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Gov. Brian Sandoval, who gave up a lifetime appointment as a federal judge to run for the Nevada office, said he liked the job so much that he was turning his back on a U.S. Senate bid that he would've been highly favored to win.

Sandoval's decision to forgo a run for the seat held by retiring Democrat Sen. Harry Reid brings the search for the Republican nominee into sharper focus and increases speculation about what the future holds for the popular governor once his term expires in early 2019 — or whether he'll take another political opportunity sooner than that.

"My heart is here. My heart is in my job," said Sandoval, who again avoided making promises about whether he'll finish out his second term during a Tuesday interview with The Associated Press. "I don't mean to minimize the honor and privilege it would be to serve in the United States Senate, but there's still a lot to do here."

Sandoval, 51, said Tuesday that he wanted to focus on improving Nevada's infrastructure and higher education system, and that the demands of campaigning or working as a senator would cut into time with his wife and three children.

Term limits will prevent Sandoval from running for governor again, but his name has been tossed around as a potential cabinet member, federal judge, Supreme Court justice or vice presidential candidate. He's close with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the two enjoyed a private breakfast at the governor's mansion in Carson City on Bush's visit to Nevada last month.

Still, the popularity that won him 71 percent of the vote in November might not translate so clearly to the national Republican base, especially after his recent, successful effort to push a $1.1 billion tax package through the Republican-controlled Legislature.

"It's hard to be a moderate in that party right now," said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "He's taken a lot of positions that may be good for Nevada, but an outsider may not see them as such."

Meanwhile, the race for Senate in Nevada is taking shape.

Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, announced in April that she would seek to replace Reid, while a potential primary foe, U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, said she would not join the race and would instead seek re-election to the House.

On the Republican side, Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers has long said he would enter the race, although he's considered a longshot. Three-term Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, a one-star general and military doctor, has said he's seriously exploring a bid.

"We've given this a lot of thought," Heck said Tuesday. "Now that the governor has announced he is not running, we will give it additional consideration. I appreciate the outpouring of support and encouragement — we'll make an announcement very soon."

Reid, 75, the Senate Democratic leader, announced in March that he would not seek a sixth term. The decision came after an exercise injury that left him blind in one eye.

He's backed Cortez Masto as his successor.

"Everyone knows that I've been complimentary of Gov. Sandoval. I think he's done a good job," Reid told reporters on Tuesday. "We have a winner in Catherine Cortez Masto. She's a wonderful longtime Nevadan — and in fact lifetime Nevadan. And it doesn't matter who runs against, her she's going to be just fine."

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Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report from Washington.