His party’s caucus is fracturing over health care. The president is stepping up the pressure. The battle threatens to derail the entire Democratic domestic agenda. And you think Harry Reid has problems in Washington.
Back home in Nevada, a recent poll shows the Senate majority leader falling behind in his race for re-election next fall. The publisher of the state’s largest newspaper announced this week that the paper was “calling Reid out” after Reid jokingly said he hoped the notoriously conservative newspaper would “go out of business.” And a federal judge named by Reid has resigned that lifetime appointment reportedly to run for governor against Reid’s son, Rory, or possibly against Reid himself. Leadership has its privileges, though they are not in abundant supply of late for Searchlight, Nevada’s favorite son.
Despite his sagging poll numbers, Harry Reid is drawing support from some high-level Nevada Republicans—who understand, as professor Michael Green at the College of Southern Nevada puts it, that “a small state that gives up its Senate seniority is not shooting itself in the foot. It’s shooting its foot off. And heading up the leg.”
The Las Vegas Review-Journal commissioned the Mason-Dixon poll that showed Reid being clobbered by either of two potential Republican challengers: Danny Tarkanian or Sue Lowden. Tarkanian, the son of famed University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach and himself a former UNLV basketball star, leads Reid 49 percent to 38 percent, with 13 percent undecided. A Las Vegas real-estate professional, Tarkanian lost a 2004 race for Nevada state Senate and a 2006 bid to become secretary of state. Last month, he won a court victory on libel and slander charges he filed against a previous political opponent who had accused him of shoddy business practices. In saner times, “Little Tark’s” candidacy would be dismissed as delusional. He was not the Republican Party leaders’ first choice to tackle Reid. They had tried to recruit two-term Congressman Dean Heller, but he declined to run, leaving Tarkanian as the only candidate to have thus far formally thrown his hat in the ring.
• Paul Begala: Bring Back Fighting Obama Sue Lowden, the state GOP chairwoman, also leads Reid by 45 percent to 40 percent, with 15 percent undecided, according to the Mason-Dixon poll. The former television news reporter served one term as state senator in 1992 but was defeated for reelection in 1996 when the powerful Culinary Workers Union mobilized against her because her casino-owning husband was rabidly anti-union. Lowden has yet to announce her candidacy; when she does, she will face a pool of lusterless no-names in the primary. But, as Las Vegas columnist Jon Ralston put it, “the old cliché that you can’t beat something with nothing may be turned on its head next year.”
Other political observers in the state feel the polls lack credibility, having been commissioned by Republican interests. “Of course the poll also says that four in 10 Nevadans approve of holy-roller, colossal hypocrite and spoiled brat John Ensign,” Las Vegas journalist Hugh Jackson writes. (Ensign, you’ll recall, hit the headlines with his sex and hush-money scandal this summer; despite it all, he says he intends to remain in office and seek re-election in 2012). “So either the poll is suspect or Nevadans are.”
With the primary a year away, Reid is sitting on a $25 million war chest and no viable opposition. Yet liberals and conservatives alike attack him with equal fervor. His “critics run the gamut from right-wing ideologues such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh…to left wingers who think he’s too cautious in pursuing the Democratic agenda,” according to the Las Vegas alternative weekly, City Life.
Such sentiments were on display August 26 at a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce luncheon, where Reid drew the ire from both the right and the left. More than 100 protesters, carrying signs that read “Too Liberal for Nevada” and “Anyone But Harry,” picketed outside the Four Seasons Hotel where the event was held. Inside, the majority leader’s conciliatory remarks toward his Senate colleagues—and the manner in which he conspicuously ignored the proposed government-run “public option” health-insurance plan—infuriated the liberal wing of his party. Referring to the death of Senator Edward Kennedy and the frailty of Senator Robert Byrd, Reid seemed resigned to the necessity of bipartisan legislation, whatever that might mean, if there is any. Perhaps remembering one of Kennedy’s favorite oft-repeated Voltaire quotes—“don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”—Reid insisted that the Democrats “need a few Republican votes on everything we do.” Where he will find them is anyone’s guess.
Yet history may help him; Reid is the most powerful political figure Nevada has ever produced, and there is a longstanding tradition in the state to value accumulated power. Even Sig Rogich, the longtime Republican political operative who was a top media consultant to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has endorsed Reid, much to the chagrin of his colleagues in Washington. “Nevada needs to understand at this perilous time in our state’s history,” Rogich asks, “why would you ever think about getting rid of the majority leader of the U.S. Senate?” Rogich and other high-level Nevada Republicans are backing Reid because “they understand how government works,” according to Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. “A small state that gives up its Senate seniority is not shooting itself in the foot. It’s shooting its foot off. And heading up the leg.”
Looming as a wild card is Judge Brian Sandoval—the charismatic onetime rising star in the state’s Republican Party whom Sen. Reid managed to neutralize as a rival by getting him appointed to Nevada’s U.S. District Court. It had been Reid, with the support of Ensign, who had recommended Sandoval to then-president George W. Bush, and who paved the way for Sandoval’s Senate confirmation. “A brilliant strategy,” as a Las Vegas columnist put it, “if only it had worked.” The 45-year-old former assemblyman, gaming commissioner, and attorney general recently announced he was giving up his $174,000-per-year lifetime appointment to the bench. Judicial ethics preclude him from discussing his political future, but he is widely expected to announce his intentions as soon as his resignation from the federal bench is effective on September 15. The Nevada pundits are nearly unanimous in predicting Sandoval will run for governor, facing the beleaguered Republican incumbent Jim Gibbons in his own party (Gibbons insists he will run for re-election even though his poll numbers have plummeted and his money has dried up following allegations that he assaulted a woman in a Las Vegas parking garage.) Should Sandoval prevail, he could face Reid’s son, Rory, in the general election. Reid the younger is among the Democrats’ rising stars, but Sandoval, the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in Nevada, could prove a daunting foe. Rumor has it that Sandoval will be taking a crash course in Spanish in order to compete with Rory, whose fluency in that language was obtained during his Mormon mission to South America.
But some Nevada powerbrokers speculate that Sandoval will bypass the statehouse race and challenge Sen. Reid. Sandoval would quickly overshadow such lightweights as Tarkanian and Lowden, and, with his roots in Northern Nevada, would energize the region that most deeply resents Southern Nevada politicians like Reid. State GOP circles are abuzz with worry that another shoe is about to drop in both the Gibbons and Ensign scandals; both are the subject of ongoing investigations. Sandoval could fill either one of those seats.
The election is, of course, still more than 400 days off—an eternity in politics, and plenty of time to recover from the health-care debate’s wounds. Obama carried Nevada by 12 points last fall, a fact which may further buoy the incumbent on Election Day. At this stage, virtually all observers say the Senate race is a crapshoot. Regardless of who his opponent turns out to be, Reid must remind old Nevadans, and convince new Nevadans, that seniority matters, and that his position as Senate majority leader benefits all Nevadans—North and South, Democrat and Republican. He’s been written off before, faced looming defeat throughout most of his career; indeed, he came within just a few hundred votes of being beaten by John Ensign in 1998. “My path to the present was as circuitous and turbulent and unique as it was unlikely,” Reid wrote in the preface to his 2008 autobiography, The Good Fight. “I come from a flyspeck on the map called Searchlight in remote Southern Nevada…people who come from where I come from generally do not end up in the United States Senate.” The odds were long then, and the odds are long now. But the smart money in Vegas never bets against Harry.
Sally Denton is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and author of six books, including T he Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America and the forthcoming The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Bloomsbury Press).