Nevada's Close Election: Harry Reid’s Last Stand

The most powerful Senator is fighting for survival. The surprising thing about Harry Reid is not that he’s on the ropes, but that he got this far in the first place.

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid answers questions for the media after giving a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada on Aug. 25, 2010. (Photo: Julie Jacobson / AP Photo)

As Senator Harry Reid stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bill Clinton in a high school gym in Las Vegas earlier this week, the contrast was impossible to ignore.

One man controlled the audience the way a conductor might lead an orchestra, with well-timed pauses to bring the room to a hush, pithy swipes to lift the crowd to a rousing crescendo. This man projected energy and a relish for battle.

The other man was Senator Harry Reid.

This appearance with the 42nd president was Reid’s first big campaign event of the fall in Nevada, and that’s saying something, considering the most powerful politician to emerge from this state has less than three weeks to save his political life. He’s given a few speeches here and there over the summer, visited with small pockets of constituents at intimate events, raised loads and loads of money and flooded airwaves, websites and email in-boxes with messages defining GOP opponent Sharron Angle as extreme or even crazy.

Running against a candidate who has just raised an impressive $14 million this quarter, the Senate majority leader is locked in a too-close-to-call race and must now get out on the stump, his least comfortable place. Throughout his career, he’s displayed all the traits that would seem to conspire against a successful politician: attention discomfort, a certain unease in crowds, the absence of conventional good looks and a propensity for outsized gaffes.

Frustrated Reid partisans, derisive Angle supporters and the perplexed national media frequently ask how the incumbent could be struggling to beat someone deemed to be so far out on the fringe.

“I walked out of his office thinking, ‘Oh. My. God. This is the beginning of the end. Man has lost it.”

But perhaps the better question is the one asked by Ingrid Wellington after Clinton and Reid left the stage: “I do wonder how someone like that got to be where he is in the first place. I do. I respect him immensely, but I do wonder.”

The answer to that question, according to more than a dozen former Reid staffers and other Nevada political insiders is that he didn’t get there by accident. Beneath that rumpled, poorly spoken exterior has always been a supremely ambitious, occasionally callous, political operator focused as much on connecting with, and bolstering, the right people and finding ways to win, often by miniscule margins. The 70-year-old son of a rural miner, they say, is an opportunist who has repeatedly won by betting the long shot, from running for lieutenant governor in 1970 with his former high school teacher to telling Senator Barack Obama in early 2007 that the Illinois freshman should seek the presidency.

And despite an approval rating in the 30s, against the backdrop of the worst housing and job market in the nation, Reid’s still in the game.

“There’s always another trick up his sleeve you didn’t see coming,” said a current staffer for Nevada’s scandal-plagued junior senator, John Ensign. “This is not a man who leaves anything to chance. If he loses, it won’t be because of anything he and his staff—who are ruthless in their defense of him—didn’t do. It will be because the nor’easter they’re walking against proved just too strong.”

Angle may turn out to be either that nor’easter or Reid’s most impressive trick so far. Pundits in Nevada believe the senator orchestrated a long list of political maneuvers—ensuring the defeat of a three-term Republican congressman, getting a potential rival a federal judiciary appointment, possibly even having a hand in a specious, later dismissed, indictment of the sitting lieutenant governor—to clear the field of well-known, popular opponents. But that's not all of it.

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“I can tell you this,” U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas, confided. “More than a year ago, I was in Harry Reid’s office in Washington and he told me his opponent was going to be Sharron Angle. I walked out of his office thinking, ‘Oh. My. God. This is the beginning of the end. Man has lost it.’ ‘Sharron Angle is going to be my opponent,’ he said to me. She wasn’t even registering. She wasn’t even an official candidate!”

It’s hard to see how Reid could have known. Angle won thanks to a confluence of apparently unpredictable events, among them a gaffe-riddled campaign by then-frontrunner Sue Lowden and the decision by the Tea Party Express to back Angle

One of his former spokespeople, Tessa Hafen, offers this by way of explaining his divining powers: “He pays close attention to everything happening in this state. Nothing goes by him. Nothing.”

In nearly a quarter-century in the Senate, Reid has built a solid track record of legislative achievement for Nevada, including all-but-killing Yucca Mountain as a national nuclear waste repository; renegotiating the Colorado River water deal with California and bringing home billions for an endless list of public works projects.

But in a state with a population that has doubled since 1998, many voters lived elsewhere during his political rise and just know him as a craggy-faced, dour septuagenarian who aggressively carries legislative water for a currently unpopular president.

Even one-time allies have expressed reservations about his support of Obama’s agenda, with one big name—casino mogul Steve Wynn—quite open about the fact that he’s just barely supporting Reid.

“Am I conflicted by my ideological differences with what the Congress has done and my friendship with Harry? My answer to that question is ‘yes’ and I’ve expressed frustration over that conflict to my friend Harry over the phone,” Wynn said. “I think that applies to almost everybody in the upper end of the business community in this state.”

But Reid, it seems, takes adversity in stride, often telling a story that sums up his philosophy on the public's view of him. Once, shortly after being elected lieutenant governor, he overheard a passer-by saying, “There’s Harry Reid, I hate that guy.” In Reid’s retelling, the remark didn’t hurt his feelings. Rather, he realized the slight expressed a similar sentiment to his own hatred of the New York Yankees—it was simplistic, irrational and not worth over-thinking.

“He has a lot of other more important things to do than making sure everybody likes him, and so he does not go out of his way to accomplish that,” Hafen said. “I know it’s a strange thing to say about a politician.”

To understand Reid’s equilibrium, it may help to remember that the first person to ever tell him he had much of a future wasn’t one of his parents (his drunk father was, perhaps, too busy beating his mother) but a “whoremonger,” as the senator put it in his 2008 autobiography, The Good Fight. In one of many only-in-Nevada moments, the teen had been caught stealing empty bottles from a casino in the tiny, impoverished mining burg of Searchlight about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, when a brothel owner caught him. “Pinky,” he told the kid, deploying Reid’s childhood nickname, "you should never steal anything from anybody. I didn't get you in trouble because I think you could amount to something."

Reid was later taken under the wing of his high school history teacher, Mike O’Callaghan, a World War II veteran who went on to become the state’s most popular governor. Reid was carried along by O’Callaghan and introduced to the Carson City halls of power during the early 1970s. Having converted to Mormonism in college, he quickly became a rising star in the small, clubby state of fewer than 500,000 people, which had a heavily Mormon power structure.

In 1974, the year of Watergate fallout, his political career nearly died prematurely when Reid became the only Democrat in the nation to lose a Senate seat previously controlled by the Democrats. The loss to Republican Paul Laxalt by 611 votes was followed the next year by a failed bid for Las Vegas mayor. But his mentor O’Callaghan steered him back on course by appointing him chairman of the powerful Nevada Gaming Commission, a post that placed him at the center of the state’s most significant industry, positioning him to win a House seat in 1982. In 1986, after Laxalt retired, Reid won his first Senate term.

While Nevada may be a small state, it is also a rich one, a fact Reid exploited in extending favors to colleagues. With his access to Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian and other moguls of the Strip, the former gaming commission boss became a major conduit between Vegas and Washington. By the time Reid became Democratic whip in 1999, “he had been raising money for some of these people for 20 years,” Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith said. “We’re a very popular place to pick up a check.

Reid showed an intense loyalty to his benefactors while also projecting sincerity and trustworthiness. “He’s an extremely skilled politician but that doesn’t mean that you’re not getting what you see,” said former Reid staffer Ari Rabin-Havt, echoing countless staffers and Vegas leaders of all political stripes. “I’ve worked for a lot of politicians and Harry Reid is probably the most genuine person I’ve ever worked for.”

Those very real friendships help explain why he has hundreds of prominent Republicans on his side, an eclectic list that includes several top gaming executives, the mayor of Reno, Wayne Newton and Greg Maddux. Sig Rogich, who chaired Ronald Reagan’s campaigns in the state, pays Reid this compliment: “When you become the majority leader, you have to take the party line. But I think Harry Reid has the best interests of Nevadans in mind.”

Reid has also long had an innate ability to co-opt or neutralize his foes. After defeating Ensign in the 1998 election, he did little in 2000 to help Democratic candidate Ed Bernstein as Ensign tried again. When the Republican was elected, Reid instructed his staff to make nice with the junior senator’s people, believing that it would be tactically better for Nevada to have one senator from each party. “The man loves Nevada so much that he was even willing to shackle himself to John Ensign to get his agenda through,” another former Reid staffer said. “It irritated staff to no end because we had to cede credit to Ensign when he didn’t do shit. But he figured he’d give Ensign the credit and leverage it for something later. It was much handier to co-opt John Ensign immediately and bring him into the Harry Reid operation.”

The most challenging aspect of that operation can be message control, and nobody can scramble Reid's focus better than Reid himself. For example, in May 2005, when the senator was asked his opinion of President Bush by a student in a high school civics class, he said: “I think this guy is a loser.”

After the event, Hafen said, “we got in the car and I said, ‘Senator, you know that you just said President Bush is a loser, right?’…And he said, ‘Oh, did I say that?’ He didn’t realize it.”

Reid apologized for that remark, but the stream of intemperate, controversial or plain odd remarks continues to bedevil his staffers. Last month, he referred to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as the “hottest member” in Congress, describing, that same week, Democratic Senate nominee Chris Coons of Delaware as “my pet.” Those flaps came on top of the revelation earlier this year that the senator in 2008 had praised Obama as “light-skinned” with “ no Negro dialect.”

Another former Reid staffer said his team lived “in perpetual fear” of such gaffes. “He takes (his team) right off message and they can spend I don’t know how much time trying to get back on message,” this staffer said. “They have long employed tactics to keep his media appearances limited, I can’t deny that.”

Although the Reid campaign has consistently criticized Angle for seemingly hiding from the media, Reid himself has not given a single in-depth interview to any of the state’s newspapers or TV stations since the June 8 primary, despite many requests. (Reid wasn’t made available for this report, either.) His staff also doesn’t release his full schedule of campaign events and constituent appearances, arguing they are not media events.

Keeping Reid under wraps, however, could prove a risky gambit, given his need to reintroduce himself to a public that feels decidedly distant from him and wants to know why the land they expected to flow with milke and honey now flows with vinegar. Even after months of constant television and ads on the Web that portray his opponent as a radical right-wing extremist who is cruelly insulting to rape victims, people with autism, the unemployed and those with health needs, he’s only pushed ahead modestly if at all.

Still, campaign staffers have clearly made a calculation that they don’t want to chance a major verbal slip-up just before the election and that therefore heavily stage-managing their boss is the best approach.

On Labor Day, with Vegas’ newsrooms in quiet holiday mode, Reid’s staff held an under-the-radar press conference to promote a green-energy summit—and just two reporters showed up. When the poor attendance was noted to a Reid spokesman, he replied, perhaps channeling his master’s voice: “That’s how we like it—low-key.”

Steve Friess is a veteran Vegas-based freelancer whose work appears in The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, the Los Angeles 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.