Democrats scrambled quickly to circulate a list of potential Reid successors, including former Rep. Steven Horsford and onetime secretary of State Ross Miller. Most of the speculation, however, swirled around former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, a Reid protégé long tabbed for higher office. In an interview with NPR's Las Vegas affiliate, Reid said he talked to Masto that morning and hoped she would run—and that his political machine could remain in play even if he does not.
"If she does, I'm gonna help her," he said.
Attorney general is a traditional stepping stone to higher office, and both parties are usually eager to embrace female candidates. In a state with a booming Latino population, Masto's Hispanic heritage could persuade many of them to turn out and support her at above-average rates.
The question is whether she runs—Republicans hold every nonfederal statewide office in Nevada, meaning that Democrats have a thin bench of other alternatives—and if she does, whether she will hold up to scrutiny. Masto won both of her AG races by 15 points, but a marquee Senate campaign is sure to be much more competitive. And Republicans say they hope cracks that weren't evident in her state-level races will surface under the stress of a much higher-profile contest.
"Masto is a rock star on paper, but she has never been in a fight," said one GOP strategist with experience in the state, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
A lack of experience in political fights was never going to be a problem with Reid. He is a proven winner whose record in difficult races included surviving the conservative wave of 2010, when he scraped past gaffe-prone Republican Sharron Angle. His political operation, despite recent setbacks, was still considered second to none. And GOP operatives expected that he would raise tens of millions of dollars almost instantly, much of it for a super PAC designed to destroy whichever Republican looked like the biggest threat.
"There hasn't been a race of consequence in Nevada in the last 20 years that Reid hasn't had his hands on or meddled in," said the Republican strategist with experience in Nevada. "They lost their quarterback and coach in one announcement. Obama built some of the ground game, but Reid ran the organization from top to bottom. "
Reid would have needed all his tactical ability to overcome his deeply unpopular image among Nevada voters. Not unlike Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who survived his own reelection fight last year in Kentucky, Reid's leadership role and long tenure made him a symbol of Washington dysfunction. And his poll numbers suffered as a result: A February survey from the GOP polling firm OnMessage found that 59 percent of Nevada's likely voters viewed Reid unfavorably. Internal polls should always be taken skeptically, but a Democratic source tracking Reid's numbers confirmed that their own polling shows the minority leader to be more unpopular now than he was in 2010.