Harry Reid and Rory Reid: Nevada’s Political Dynasty in Trouble

Pundits used to talk of a father-and-son political dynasty in Nevada. Not anymore. Harry Reid and son, Rory, are both on the Democratic ticket – and in trouble. By Steve Friess

Pundits used to talk of a father-and-son political dynasty in Nevada. Not anymore. Harry Reid and son, Rory, are both on the Democratic ticket – and in trouble. Plus, the Election Oracle puts Harry Reid's chances at 40 percent.

A few weeks ago, Rory Reid’s mother-in-law was concerned about the state of his campaign for Nevada governor and, so, naturally, Helen Madsen rang up the smartest political mind she knew: Reid’s father, Harry.

“And he said, ‘You know, Helen, he’s got experts, and I’m really busy with my own campaign,’ ” Madsen recalled of the chat with the state’s longtime U.S. senator. “And that was that.”

The brief exchange goes a long way to answering the question of what the Reid family’s life is like these days as Nevada’s momentous Election Day approaches. At the same time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is locked in a toss-up battle against Tea Party darling Sharron Angle, his eldest son is a scrappy underdog against GOP opponent Brian Sandoval.

The two have run separate campaigns that almost never overlap—publicly or, evidently, privately—despite how small a state this is. Last week, when President Barack Obama appeared in Las Vegas to energize Democrats to vote, Rory Reid left the rally to speak at a funeral before Obama and Harry Reid appeared on the dais, never even receiving a name-check from the president. Earlier in the campaign, the younger candidate, a two-term Clark County Commissioner, was lampooned for occasionally omitting his last name from campaign materials, a seeming effort to separate himself that he has denied.

“I talk to my dad all the time, but we’re more likely to talk about my kids, his grandkids, what’s going on in the family than the get-out-the-vote program,” Rory Reid said after a rally in Henderson on Monday. “As the candidate, it’s a very chaotic, fast-paced existence. You don’t sit around thinking about anything. You have to rely on people to handle the details. Both of us are the candidates. We’re not discussing the intricacies of the early vote program.”

11 Hottest Midterm Races to Watch Election Oracle midterm predictions Indeed, the only times Harry Reid’s name arises in the Reid-Sandoval tussle is when journalists bring it up or, occasionally, when Sandoval does. “It was a privilege to be recommended by your father to the federal bench, and he never questioned my integrity,” Sandoval, a former U.S. District Judge, parried in response to an attack during a debate Tuesday night in Elko. Such asides not withstanding, so confident is Sandoval, he hasn’t made his opponent’s family name an issue this election, even though the Obama-Pelosi-Reid boogieman trinity elsewhere has become a near-constant Republican refrain. (Rory Reid said he conducted polling that showed his last name wasn’t an issue for voters. However, that polling was done shortly after the 2008 election when Obama had trounced John McCain in Nevada and Democrats were still enjoying the euphoria of two consecutive wave elections.)

"The two have run separate campaigns that almost never overlap – publicly or, evidently, privately"—despite how small a state this is.

The 70-year-old senator and his 47-year-old son appear to have a strong personal relationship but are rarely seen together. And in the 2008 cycle, the younger Reid distinguished himself by chairing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Nevada at a time, it was later revealed, when his father was privately encouraging Obama to run. “I’ve known Rory and Harry for 20 or 30 years. I think they’ve got a great relationship, but Rory’s always had to [assert] that I-am-my-own-person thing, so you probably didn’t ever see them together that much,” said Chris Giunchigliani, who serves with Rory Reid on the Clark County Commission.

It wasn’t always like that. Back in the 1980s, when Harry was in his first term and Rory was a twenty-something newlywed, politics was the family business, said Helen Madsen, mother of Rory’s wife, Cindy. “Rory and Cindy were the ones who lived in Las Vegas, so all the family gatherings were at their house and it was politics, politics, politics,” she said.

That didn’t mean Rory was minted, Kennedy-style, for a life of public service. While his father was elected state assemblyman at the tender age of 28, Rory Reid toiled as a corporate lawyer for years, only taking on the role of state party chief at 36. Then, in 2002 – against the advice of his father who wanted him to run for a newly created Nevada seat in the U.S. House – Rory ran for the Clark County Commission, the powerful board that lords over the Las Vegas Strip and most economic issues regarding then-booming southern Nevada. The commission, Rory Reid recounted his father telling him, was a “dead end job,” and Harry Reid worried his son might be tainted if he was affiliated with a board widely seen as corrupt. (Four former commissioners have been convicted in a bribery scandal since 2005.)

But so far Reid has kept his reputation scandal-free. Instead, he is known as a calm, soft-spoken mediator who, with his mop of parted silver hair and long, angular face, occasionally appears awkward even as he flaunts the charisma-deficit that seem to affect both father and son. (The younger Reid regularly tells crowds he knows he’s not “Mr. Electricity.”)

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“I think Rory would tell you he’s a great believer in compromise,” said Giunchigliani. “I believe it’s a strength. But when it becomes a political persona, it’s like, ‘What’s the difference between anybody?’ You have to have that delineation.”

Whereas at one time Nevada’s pundits wondered about the prospect of a Reid political dynasty in Nevada or how the notion of two top-of-the-ticket Reids would impact one another in the 2010 election, much of that chatter has dissipated because the younger man has trailed Sandoval by double-digit margins in almost every poll since the start of the race. Rather than a dynasty, in fact, the state faces the prospects, should the senator succumb to the Republican wave and his own long-lousy approval ratings, of having no Reids in elective office or prominent posts for the first time in nearly 40 years.

“Rory’s never gotten any traction,” said David Damore, a political science professor at University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “He’s thrown everything he’s had, and Sandoval largely ignored him.”

And so, these days, the conversation centers on whether Rory Reid was wise to run at all. Among those who wish now they had spoken up to avert Rory’s gubernatorial candidacy: U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas. “I’m good friends with Rory, he’d be a good governor, but I remember the conversation we had two years ago,” Berkley said. “Rory tells me he’s going to be running for governor. I said, ‘Oh, that'’s fantastic. When?’ 2010. Great. Ding, ding, ding. ‘Rory, isn’t your father going to be running then?’ He said, ‘Yes, but you know we have separate careers.’ In hindsight, I said, ‘Great, terrific, wonderful you know I’m a Reid person, I’m with you.’ Maybe I should have thought that out and given him sage counsel. This doesn’t mean he can’t pull it out, but in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the thing to do.”

Steve Friess is a veteran Vegas-based freelancer whose work appears inthe New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, the LA Times and many others. He's a contributing writer for AOLNews, a columnist for the Las Vegas Weekly, blogs at VegasHappensHere.Com and is host of two podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal-affairs program The Petcast. He Tweets at @TheStripPodcast.