If you’ve been reading the papers lately you’ve probably concluded that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political future doesn’t look good. The headlines speak for themselves: “Poll: Reid’s re-election numbers don’t add up”; “Harry Reid Seen Losing 2010 Reelection, Poll Shows”; “Senate Leader Harry Reid faces tough re-election” — just to name a few. If you’re just glancing at the polls, Reid’s two likely challengers are clobbering him in hypothetical match-ups — and some polls show Republican challenger Danny Tarkanian has a double-digit lead over him. Further, Reid’s approval rating ranges between 20 and 40 percent, with some polls showing that over half of Nevadans have an unfavorable opinion of him. Poll numbers like that are usually fatal for an incumbent politician.
But Harry Reid is no ordinary politician, and this is no ordinary race. In fact, in speaking with Nevada political observers one quickly discovers that Reid is still favored to win reelection. Let us count the ways:
The gaming industry is all in. Harry Reid is the former chairman of the Nevada gaming commission and has close ties to the gaming industry. “The gaming industry of course is the 800-pound gorilla in Nevada’s state economy,” Chuck Muth, a Nevada political consultant and the former executive director of the American Conservative Union, told National Review Online. “It provides the bulk of the jobs and revenue to state government through gaming taxes and has a lot of clout. They also have a lot to protect and believe that having Senator Harry Reid as the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, that’s something that’s of value to them, to protect their interests. . . . It’s much better to have a Senate majority leader than a rookie Republican freshman, so the gaming industry has lined up behind [Reid].”
He’s a brass-knuckles politician. This is hardly the first time Reid has faced a tough reelection bid. In 1998, he eked out a squeaker against then-congressman, now senator John Ensign by only 400 votes. “He fights with the press, isn’t afraid to take his gloves off,” observes Muth. “This is Harry Reid’s strength in political campaigns. . . . I’m not saying he’ll do anything illegal but he’ll do anything up to that line to win an election. Hats off to somebody like that.”
The competition is relatively untested. Reid’s close victory over Ensign in 1998 came before he had the elevated national profile he has now. Further, Ensign was — at least on paper — a much more formidable GOP challenger than one Reid is likely to face next year. Ensign was already a congressman and his family included formidable members of the gaming industry. Reid’s two likely challengers in 2010 are Danny Tarkanian and Sue Lowden. Tarkanian is a lawyer, former Rhodes Scholar, son of a famous UNLV basketball coach, and a college basketball star in his own right — no question, he’s an appealing candidate. So is the well-connected Lowden, Nevada’s Republican party chairman. Either one could defeat Reid, but neither candidate’s political mettle has been tested the way that Reid’s has.
It’s about money and power. Reid will no doubt have a heck of a campaign war chest to fall back on if the race gets tough. That’s an advantage, but not the end-all-be-all. Anjeanette Damon, political reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal, notes that campaign cash will get you only so far in Nevada. Between Reno and Las Vegas it’s a relatively small TV market. “It’s really easy to saturate the airwaves,” she says. That’s where Reid’s political clout should factor in, says Muth. “The other day a headline in the La Junta [Nevada] newspaper that he had brought $100 million back to Nevada for Naval Air Station Fallon. Those types of headlines get people to say, hey, this guy is delivering for Nevada, why would we want to change? So it’s going to be incumbent on the Republican candidate, whoever it is, to undercut this notion that Harry Reid is the guy who can take care of Nevada better than a freshman Republican alternative.” That will be no easy task for the GOP nominee.
Of course, Nevada politics isn’t a casino: The house doesn’t always win. There are any number of X factors that could make things difficult for Reid in his re-election bid. A brief overview:
Independents matter. As a state, Nevada has always had a high percentage of independent and third-party voters. When Reid beat Ensign in 1998 by 400 votes, GOP consultants in the state ruefully note, there were thousands of libertarian votes cast. A day or two extra on the campaign trail courting the libertarian vote could have been the difference. While independents broke Democratic last November, poll after poll now shows independents rejecting outright the expansive and fiscally profligate agenda of Obama and the Democrats. Reid is the face of a national Democratic party trying to ram through an unpopular national agenda.
Health reform puts Reid between a rock and a hard place. Of all the aspects of the Democrats’ unpopular agenda, none is as contentious as health reform and, in particular, the public option. Reid recently made a renewed push for the public option even though most moderate Democratic senators representing purple states are dead set against it. Reid may be trying to protect his left flank. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank suggests that Reid’s move “was an admission of the formidable power of liberal interest groups. He had been the target of a petition drive and other forms of pressure to bring the public option to the floor, and Monday’s move made him an instant hero on the left.” The problem for Reid, as Muth sees it, is that all of the campaign enthusiasm is on the right and pushing a government plan for health care means not just alienating independents but stirring up a hornets’ nest of Tea Party activists eager to work phones and lick stamps for his opponent. “It’s going to be ‘Harry Reid supports public option and Harry Reid is bad’ — that’s the sound bite. To overcome that, Harry Reid is going to have to explain what public option means and everything else in that 1,500-page bill,” Muth says. “I think that and the fact that he has to cater to the far Left and embrace that public option could very easily come back to bite him in the campaign months from now.”