Harry Reid's favored candidate to keep his Senate seat in the Democratic column is in many ways a stark contrast with himself: a Latina prosecutor who has only run one competitive political race in her career.
Yet Democrats are abuzz about former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who Reid essentially endorsed Friday. She won both of her campaigns for attorney general—including one in 2010 that she rendered basically uncompetitive—by more than 15 percentage points and has family lineage in state politics. Reid worked during his Senate career to promote change within his state party as its electorate grew more diverse, and Masto personifies the coalition on which Democrats now rely.
"The person I've spoken to today is Catherine Masto—Cortez Masto," Reid said on public radio just hours after announcing his retirement plans. "She has a great résumé. "¦ I hope she decides to run.
"If she does, I'm gonna help her," Reid continued, saying: "I think it'd be hard for her to lose."
Masto is not the only Democrat eyeing the race. Rep. Dina Titus, the only woman in the Nevada congressional delegation, told The Hill Friday that she's giving a Senate run "serious thought." But even before Reid weighed in, Nevada Democrats were already saying Masto—who stayed mum most of Friday before issuing a statement—basically had right of first refusal on the Democratic Senate nomination.
"Today isn't a day for partisan politics," Masto said in the statement. "Today is a day to thank Senator Reid for his service to Nevada. I wish him all the best."
A Latina in a state where one-third of the population is Hispanic, Masto has a family name that goes way back in Nevada politics. Her father, Manny Cortez, who passed away in 2006, is credited with transforming the Las Vegas strip into the tourism destination it is today as longtime head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. He and Reid had a long-standing relationship, and Reid has known Cortez's daughter for years.
Masto's connection with Reid has led to controversy in the past. In 2008, her office indicted then-Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, a Republican who had started exploring a Senate run against Reid, on charges that a judge threw out a year later. But the indictment still derailed Krolicki's political plans, and he remains miffed that Masto never apologized. Reid went on to win reelection narrowly against a gaffe-prone opponent in 2010.
Masto previously served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C., and as former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller's chief of staff. Democrats who have worked with Masto describe her as a hard worker but a less "bombastic" partisan than the average statewide candidate (or Reid, for that matter).
She has been talked about as a potential candidate for Senate or governor in the past; in particular, allies say her talks with Reid about the Senate go back years. But Masto took a pass on running for another office in 2014 to take a job with the Nevada System of Higher Education. In doing so, she avoided a historic Republican wave that left Reid as the only Democrat left in statewide office, keeping her record unblemished for a potential run this year.
"The Cortez family and the Reids have been very close," said Nevada Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez. "I think you're going to see Reid do a full-court press on her behalf. Having her background and Reid's infrastructure will certainly make for a much easier way to capture the election."
Republicans note that Masto's candidacy would have some question marks. She has "never been in a fight," said one Nevada Republican. But even he called Masto a "rock star on paper."
"Harry Reid remains one of the most unpopular politicians in Nevada and his endorsement isn't something to brag about," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Jahan Wilcox said of the minority leader's support for Masto. Other Republicans believe—or hope—that the political machine Reid built wouldn't run for anyone but him.
In addition to her relationship with Reid, Masto would come into the Senate race with built-in ties to national groups that support women and Hispanic candidates.
EMILY's List, the Democratic women's group that has already endorsed two women of color in Senate races this cycle, already has a relationship with Masto from her state-level races. A spokeswoman praised Masto and called the surprise open seat a big opportunity.
"While today is about celebrating the work Sen. Reid has done on behalf of the middle class, we are excited about the opportunity to fill this seat with a strong, Democratic woman leader—which would be a first for Nevada," EMILY's List spokeswoman Marcy Stech said in a statement. "Catherine Cortez Masto has been a fighter for Nevada women and families. She has a bright future and it's past time to elect the first Latina to the U.S. Senate."
"She represents the future of the country, she's incredibly brilliant, has a great story," said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund, "and in a state where, really, Latinos will make the difference in the election, [she is] precisely the type of candidate that Latino Victory Fund is excited about."
This story has been updated with a statement from Masto.