Why Harry Reid Sat Out Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders

The Senate Democratic leader made the Nevada caucus happen. So why is he sitting on the sidelines?

Rick Wilking/Reuters

Thirty-nine of the 44 Democrats serving in the U.S. Senate have endorsed Hillary Clinton, a show of unity that doesn’t faze Democratic leader Harry Reid, Nevada’s senior senator. He is staying neutral Saturday in the state’s caucuses that he pushed his party to create in 2008, and that will test Clinton’s touted firewall among minority voters.

“He never had a thing for Iowa and New Hampshire, to put it charitably,” says Jim Manley, Reid’s former spokesman. “He fought long and hard to make Nevada an early primary state,” contending to party leaders that its population is more diverse and representative of the country as a whole.

Therefore he wasn’t pleased when Clinton campaign aides, after losing big in New Hampshire, began to seriously downplay their candidate’s chances in Nevada, noting that the voters there are 80 percent white.

That insinuation really pushed Reid’s buttons since he’d gotten Nevada on the primary map based on its diversity. The majority of those white voters, his team notes, are probably caucusing for the Republicans.

Clinton repudiated the phony claim made by her aides, but she goes into Saturday’s caucuses without the certainty of the firewall she expected to have in the state. The race is tight with Bernie Sanders pulling close to even. The Culinary Workers, the most powerful union in the state, won’t endorse either candidate, and Reid has his reasons to withhold an endorsement until after the caucuses.

Reid is stepping down after the November election, and he is focused on generating enthusiasm that will endure into the fall and elect his preferred successor, former attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, a Latina. Bernie thy name is enthusiasm; Hillary not so much.

All politics is personal. Reid’s hands-off position is understandable. But for Clinton it is salt in a wound from eight years ago when it was reported after the fact that Reid had secretly encouraged freshman Senator Barack Obama to run for president at the same time he was expressing strict neutrality publicly and privately to the Clintons.

For a politician to have more than one agenda isn’t surprising, and Reid had his own re-election in mind when he set about to convince the Democratic Party to make his home state the next stop after Iowa and New Hampshire. He saw it as “a twofer,” says Manley. “He could put together infrastructure to help his campaign, but also make it a must-stop state for Democrats in the primaries.”

Democrats made lots of trips to Nevada in ’07 and ’08 jockeying for position in this new entry in the primary contest, and Reid was there to take full advantage of the high-profile visitors. “All that activity put together a campaign infrastructure he was able to feed off of,” says Manley. “This is nuts and bolts stuff—field offices and phone banks which in other cities were routine, but which had to be built from the ground up in Vegas.”

For sure, Reid benefitted in 2010 from a weak opponent, Sharron Angle, but she might have overtaken him if he hadn’t had this readymade infrastructure in place to eke out a win. The challenge now is for the Reid machine to turn out one more time to elect his successor, while also giving a boost to the Democratic presidential candidate.

The reason for no endorsement is to keep the suspense. “Let everybody slug it out and increase the public’s participation,” says Manley. For Clinton, it must be hard to take the long view when she’s getting hammered every day as out of step with young people and working-class voters. Making it more puzzling for her in Nevada, Reid said last year it was “time for a woman,” suggesting he would back her. No wonder stories circulate that she’s miffed.

Despite his regard for Clinton, Reid has his own reasons for staying neutral. Democrats still like him, but he barely edged out a win in 2010, and he’s unpopular in the state. His legacy is the machine he has built, and it will be tested on Saturday. In voter-rich Vegas, the Democratic electorate is African-American, Hispanic, and Filipino. In ’08, with Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton working the Strip, Clinton won, the only caucus state she won in the entire campaign. Even then, Obama took home one more delegate.

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Clinton should be uneasy. Sanders has the edge in Reno, which is a college town, and his campaign has been boasting about making a play in rural areas known in the Nevada vernacular as “cow towns.” It’s where Reid and probably most Democrats are deeply unpopular, but Sanders has momentum and money, which together with volunteers and paid advertising can sway votes.

Both campaigns say they think Clinton has a slight edge, but it could go either way. “I’m on record saying Nevada is tailor-made for Clinton to stop the bleeding and get her footing again,” says Manley, who is backing Clinton. “Either of us could win. It feels a lot like Iowa,” says Sanders strategist Tad Devine. A close race that drives media interest and turnout is what Reid wants. His endorsement will likely come after the caucuses, when it won't count for much.