Obama's Senate Point Man Is In Trouble

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid i

Polls show Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid trailing three would-be GOP opponents. Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid

Polls show Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid trailing three would-be GOP opponents.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

President Obama may have forgiven Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for racial comments he made about Obama in 2008, but have Nevada voters? On Thursday, Reid may find out when his African-American supporters hold a long-planned meeting in Las Vegas.

Reid's comments — he characterized then-candidate Obama as attractive to voters because he's a "light skinned" African-American who doesn't speak with a "Negro" dialect — were reported recently in a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign.

The brouhaha over his assessment of Obama, however, appears to be the least of Reid's problems back home, where his effort to convince voters that he deserves a fifth Senate term looks increasingly troubled.

The Nevada Numbers Game


  • Reid trails three of his would-be GOP challengers, according to a recent Mason-Dixon survey.

  • Reid's home state approval rate has fallen to 33 percent, according to the same study.

  • The respected Rothenberg Political Report now forecasts that the race for Reid's Senate seat might be leaning toward a Republican takeover.

  • One reason Reid might be in trouble: Nevada remains the national leader in home foreclosures, and unemployment has hovered around 12 percent.

  • But numbers also play in Reid's favor: Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Nevada by more than 80,000 in an electorate of around 1 million.

Buffeted by relentlessly bad poll numbers, a state economy that continues to struggle, and questions about how his foundering candidacy may be affecting his son's run for Nevada governor, Reid has faced calls to step aside and pundit predictions of his impending political demise. Deep-pocketed Republicans nationwide are poised to flood the state with money to defeat the point man for Obama's legislative agenda.

The 70-year-old senator may indeed be in peril, but Nevada politicos say that while the unpredictable Reid is down — way down — he's not out.

"Right now, everything looks bad for him," says Nevada political columnist and blogger Jon Ralston, "from the economy to the unpopularity of the Democratic agenda."

"But there are two distinct things that give him a chance," Ralston says. "The Republican field is filled with second-, third- and 19th-tier candidates, and the Republican Party organization here is virtually nonexistent."

Glimmer Of Hope?

At a meeting this week of about 100 Tea Party conservatives in Nevada, a partial lineup of Republicans jockeying to challenge Reid got five minutes each to make their case before a group that says it is poised to launch $100,000 in anti-Reid ads.

The prospective candidates included former State Sen. Sue Lowden, who says she has contributed to the Tea Party; businessman Danny Tarkanian, who played basketball at the University of Las Vegas under his father, coach Jerry Tarkanian; former Marine Bill Parsons; and Mike Wiley, once a Florida talk show host. With the GOP primary scheduled for June, the contest is expected to get rough, and Reid loyalists are predicting the ultimate candidate will emerge damaged.

Nevada's unpopular Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons faces a tough primary challenge, and the state's other U.S. senator — Republican John Ensign, up for re-election in two years — is mired in a scandal over his extramarital affair with the wife of one of his top political aides.

"I think when the election comes, it's going to be much closer than people expect, regardless of who the Republican survivor is," says Royce Feour, a retired newspaper sportswriter who, as a celebrated boxing reporter, has known Reid since the latter was a state boxing judge more than four decades ago.

"And Reid," Feour says, "has the state organization."

Indeed, if the longtime senator has a strength, it's in numbers. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Nevada by more than 80,000 in an electorate of around 1 million. The state Democratic organization and voter base were expanded dramatically by Reid's forces and on the shoulders of Obama's 2008 run — including the state's caucuses, which Reid maneuvered to get scheduled early in the presidential season.

"The party benefited enormously as an organization from the presidential caucuses," says longtime Democratic strategist Paul Harstad, who advised the Obama campaign. "Democrats have a huge organizational plus, in addition to the power of the labor unions." Those unions include the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which endorsed Obama for president.

He also has his own prodigious campaign war chest and the promise of a visit by Obama next month to bolster support.

There remain, however, serious questions about whether many of the new Democrats, including young people and black and Hispanic voters energized by Obama's presidential run, will be motivated to go to the polls in a nonpresidential year and vote for an entrenched incumbent — no matter how lofty his position in the Senate.

It Really Is The Economy, Mostly

Nevada has recently seen a sliver of economic hope: New-gaming numbers have increased for the first time in almost two years, and attendance at the Consumer Electronics Show was up. But the state remains the national leader in home foreclosures, and unemployment has hovered around 12 percent.

"As in most of the country, the economy and jobs are the No. 1 concerns among voters in the state in every poll I've seen," says Jim Denton, a GOP consultant who was among a group of Nevada Republicans who endorsed the senator last spring. "If the economy remains poor here, that will hurt [Reid] the most."

A majority of Nevadans are also skeptical about national health care overhaul legislation, for which Reid is leading the charge in the Senate. And strategists say that Nevada voters may also feel squeamish about seeing two Reids at the top of their ballots come fall: the senator and his son, Rory, who is expected to be the Democratic nominee for governor.

Reid, Ralston says, has also damaged himself with more conservative voters he once attracted with his penchant for making blunt and undiplomatic comments, and not just about Obama: He has called former President George W. Bush a "liar" and a "loser"; he said the surge in Iraq wasn't working; and he called former Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan a "hack."

Will Voters Seek Other Options?

Do Nevadans want to lose the most powerful representative they've ever had in Washington — even if many say they believe that as Senate majority leader, Reid has drifted too far to the left as the standard-bearer for Obama's agenda?

Polls right now suggest voters might take the risk. A recent Mason-Dixon survey showed Reid trailing three of his would-be GOP challengers. In addition, his home state approval rating had fallen to just 33 percent.

But Ralston cautions Republicans about overplaying that hand.

"Sen. Reid has to say that he's in the room when major decisions are being made and ask whether voters want him replaced by a backbench Republican without the keys to the bathroom," Ralson says. "It's a tough case to make, but it's all he's got — and, of course, it is a legitimate argument to make."

Forgive And Fight

In Las Vegas Thursday, Reid is expected to get forgiveness from his African-American supporters.

"Personally, I was disappointed in his choice of words," says Nevada Senate Minority Leader Steven Horsford, who chaired Obama's campaign in the Silver State. "But, in context, he was saying it in support of then-candidate Obama. I know what he did for Obama, and, privately, he long supported Obama as the right person to lead the country."

Reid is likely to put out the sagebrush fire over his "Negro" comment, which is good, strategists say, even though African-Americans typically comprise only about 6 percent of the voter turnout in Nevada elections.

But the scrapper from Searchlight is going to need every vote he can get.

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