The Trouble With Harry

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Why is Harry Reid in such rough shape for re-election? In his fight for a fifth term, Reid's unpopularity has been universally acknowledged but rarely explained. On the surface, his precarious position is difficult to understand: the Democratic Majority Leader is "the most important elected official in Nevada history," and those are the words of the state's reigning Republican strategist, Sig Rogich, who -- like the rest of the civic and gaming elite -- strongly supports Reid. 


New ads feature the slogan "No One Can Do More," and while "that's a little self-aggrandizing," as one Reid friend acknowledged, it is also hard to dispute. Reid unabashedly uses his power to deliver for Nevada: from fighting against a Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility, to supporting Nellis Air Force base, to saving the City Center hotel and casino, as well as bringing home billions for energy, health care, transportation, and education. 

Reid's GOP opponent, Sharron Angle, could not be more vulnerable if she were genetically engineered by Democratic consultants. A Tea Party acolyte, Angle beat two other B-list candidates after the party's preferred choices declined to run. She called for phasing out Social Security and Medicare and abolishing the Department of Education and was one of two votes in the Nevada Assembly against requiring insurance companies to cover cancer screenings. Angle blamed "too much regulation" for the financial crisis and is the only major Nevada politician to support a Yucca nuclear dump. And then there's her soft spot for the militia movement: Angle described herself as an "Oath Keeper," or member of a group that warns against a coming dictatorship and nationwide concentration camps, and suggested that voters could take up arms if her agenda fails. (She has since softened her rhetoric on many of these issues.) 

And yet the public polls have put Reid barely ahead, or even behind. One private poll conducted late last week for another candidate shows Reid ahead, but only by five points, and with just 44 percent of the vote. No doubt the Republicans' policy criticisms have made a difference. Reid's support for TARP and "Obamacare" and even the stimulus helped push his public image further left. But Nevada is a swing state that supported the president; surely the tagline "Reid voted like a Democrat" is, on its own, insufficient to drag him this low. Nor are there any significant Reid scandals pushing his poll numbers down. As Democratic Las Vegas Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley told me, "he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't fool around ... an hour to jog in the morning is Harry's idea of a vice." 

So what gives? Acknowledging that -- in the absence of good public data -- this endeavor is more impressionistic than scientific, I surveyed several Nevada politicos about the "perfect storm" of factors they believe have brought Reid to the brink: 

1. The Economy: Nevada's condition is the worst in the country -- the highest unemployment, the greatest foreclosure rates, the most bankruptcies. As Americans cancel their vacations, tourism-dependent Nevada has suffered a near-depression. And while Reid's team argues that he is helping to attract jobs to the state, as one Republican consultant put it, "'it could be worse' is a bad slogan." Berkeley noted that "when you've lost your job, your house, and your health care, you're gonna be mad at whoever's in power." 

2. The Leadership Role: Before Reid's ascension to Democratic leader, the senator's campaign slogan was "Independent Like Nevada." One Reid adviser admitted that his boss "can't credibly say that today given his position." His previous support among moderate Republican and unaffiliated voters collapsed as Reid became a highly visible, some say harsh, opponent of George W. Bush and ally of Barack Obama. Nevada's top political journalist, Jon Ralston, said that, as a result, "Reid is now seen as a Washington person, not a local person." The senator's condo at the D.C. Ritz-Carlton is a useful symbol of his alleged Potomac Fever. Several Democrats added that GOP leaders, buoyed by Tom Daschle's defeat, have sought to make Nevada the next South Dakota -- and have spent five and a half years, and millions of dollars, on the offensive. 

3. New voters: Before the economic collapse, Nevada was booming. Las Vegas became the nation's fastest growing city. A huge influx of new residents (more than 500,000 since Reid's last re-election and nearly one million since his last competitive race in 1998) have never seen the senator's name on a ballot. As Sig Rogich noted, many of them only associate Reid with Washington and partisanship. And as a Reid strategist said, "We have to do a better job telling his story to people who don't know him ... linking Reid's support for jobs and education to growing up in a house without hot water, hitchhiking 40 miles to get to high school, and returning home to [his boyhood town of] Searchlight today." 

4. Personality: "I'm a schmoozer," Shelley Berkeley said. "I go home all the time, I go out, but Harry Reid is a very quiet man ... he doesn't exude great enthusiasm, he's not a socializer, not a backslapper, and so people misinterpret his personality and attribute other negative factors." Jon Ralston called Reid "unpolished, undisciplined ... not approachable ... charismatically challenged" with "no force of personality at all." As a result, Ralston said, Reid has been easier for Republicans to define as part of the "three-headed Obama-Pelosi-Reid liberal monster in Washington." 

5. Reid fatigue: The Republican consultant said, "Personally, I like the guy, but he's been on the ballot for 42 years. It's time for a change." Strategists in both parties said that the senator's son, Rory -- sharing the ticket as a long-shot candidate for governor -- exacerbates the problem.

Despite all these factors, Nevada politicos agree that Reid runs the most effective campaign organization in the state. "It's a well-oiled machine and the state Republican Party is an empty vessel with no money and no bodies," Ralston said. Democrats believe that, with the presence of independent candidates and the option for disaffected voters to choose "none of the above," Reid can win even with substantially less than a majority of the vote. But two Reid campaign advisers argued that, because of the tough environment, observers should not expect the numbers to move dramatically before November. No question they want to lower expectations, but the senator's team genuinely seems to be girding for the fight of a lifetime. "We will win," one aide said, "but it will be hard and close all the way to the end."
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Brian Goldsmith is a contributor to TheAtlantic.com. A former political producer for the CBS Evening News, he is now a student at Stanford Law School.

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