Democrats had good reason to worry about Harry Reid's reelection campaign. The minority leader—who Republicans boasted was the Senate's most vulnerable incumbent in 2016—was deeply unpopular back home and a top target of wealthy conservatives sure to pour millions of dollars into his race.
But the Nevada incumbent's retirement announcement Friday guarantees that the Senate contest will play out radically different than expected, forcing Republicans to scrap the anti-Reid road map they had already drawn up and forcing Democrats to turn to untested alternatives. In the early going, in a race that might determine majority control of the Senate in 2017, it's unclear which party will ultimately benefit more from his departure.
For all of Reid's evident vulnerabilities, his enemies learned years ago never to underestimate him. The question was whether Democrats were better off running a logistical and strategic mastermind or whether a fresh-faced candidate without the baggage was a better option.
"I don't see it as totally clear cut at all," said Jordan Gehrke, a Republican strategist with experience in Nevada politics. "On one hand, you're not running against an incredibly powerful incumbent with a Death Star-like war machine. But he did have massive negatives. He does make a lot of mistakes."
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.
For Democrats, the upside of a campaign from Masto or other Democrats is the chance for a fresh start with voters in a state that, especially in presidential years, is trending blue.
"For people who are looking for a candidate to be a trailblazer and be a little different from the candidates we already have in office, she's somebody people look to," said Oscar Ramirez, a Democratic strategist. "She's young, she's diverse, she's a woman, she's a very different kind of candidate than what usually runs for statewide office, and I think that will get a her a lot of support really quickly."
It's still unclear who the Republican nominee for the race will be, but GOP operatives say it's imperative that the party avoid a repeat of the Angle nomination in 2010. Former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki; current Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchinson; the chief of staff to Gov. Brian Sandoval, Heidi Gansert; and state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson are all rumored to be eyeing a campaign, although others could emerge now that Reid has retired.
"The whole thing is wide open now," Gehrke said. "People who weren't looking at it are looking at it again this morning."
One name most Nevada Republicans don't consider a serious candidate even after the Reid news: Sandoval, the popular governor who would unquestionably be the party's best recruit but has given little indication that he wants try to jump into the Senate.
Andrea Drusch contributed to this article