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Harry Reid’s Last Power Play

LAS VEGAS — Shortly after the 2014 election, a cadre of Nevada Democratic insiders met at the Culinary Union hall just south of downtown Las Vegas.

They had gathered to survey the wreckage wrought by a red wave that swept over the state, ripping both houses of Legislature from Democratic control, erasing all Democrats from state offices and knocking off a promising young congressman in a seemingly impregnable district. The discussion focused on ways to take back the state, but at one point the subject of the only Democrat remaining in statewide office came up.

Harry Reid, the soon-to-be former U.S. Senate majority leader, was not present. But the man who had spent decades building the Nevada Democrats into perhaps the most formidable and effective state party apparatus in the country—a meddler-in-chief who determined who ran and who didn’t; who turned the money spigot on and off—suddenly looked very vulnerable. The Republicans were resurgent. The Democratic bench was gone. The House that Reid Built had been reduced to rubble.

And so the scapegoating began.

“People were talking about how we were pawns on the Reid chessboard,” one attendee recalled. “Someone else said, ‘I’m tired of the party only caring about Reid.’ Another complained that ‘stuff doesn’t filter down to us.’”

Then, a few weeks later, Reid suffered severe injuries in a freak exercise accident. On March 27, 2015 the minority leader announced he would not seek a sixth term, heralding the end of the most dominant force in state politics and signaling that Nevada Democrats would need to find a new leader. The end of the Reid era was nigh. The lame duck would hobble into history.

A year later, though, Harry Mason Reid, 76, has not gone gently. With just one good eye, he still has his hands firmly on the levers of power in his home state, and he is fighting as hard as he ever has to preserve his legacy.

Nevada is a battleground state, with a significant role to play in the presidential race, a Senate seat that might determine whether Democrats regain control of that chamber and key congressional races that could make inroads in the GOP’s majority in the House. Reid, summoning all his considerable political muscle, is determined to erase the stain of 2014 and leave his stamp on his home state and the nation.

That no one who understands Nevada politics and who has studied Reid thinks this is impossible shows just how feared the minority leader remains, and just how determined he is. Reid will not be on the ballot in 2016, but he looms as large as ever over this election. Reid named the woman he wanted to succeed him the day he announced his retirement and later signaled his favorites in two nationally watched congressional races.

“Nothing would satisfy Reid more than to leave office having helped to recapture the U.S. Senate majority and to right the ship at home,” said Rebecca Lambe, Reid’s chief political hand, his eyes and ears and hammer in the state.

Reid’s desire to execute his sweeping electoral strategy is matched only by the state GOP’s passion to humiliate the man it views as the most polarizing figure in Nevada politics. It’s salivating at the prospect of turning his swan song into a funeral dirge.

The likely GOP nominee for Reid’s Senate seat, Rep. Joe Heck, rarely speaks or writes his opponent’s name: rather than running against former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, he talks about “replacing Harry Reid.” Heck has digital ads that simply refer to “Harry Reid’s candidate.”

“If [Reid] could resist meddling, it wouldn’t be so easy [to make him an issue],” one prominent state Republican told me. “Catherine is far stronger on paper than in reality. Harry is much stronger in reality than on paper. If Harry weren’t all over this it would be a different race. With the good comes the bad—for both sides.”

The real question that Reid and his surrogates must answer in Nevada is whether he still has the same pull—with voters and within his party—that he has exhibited for decades. His chosen candidates in the three key federal races are viable but are not obvious favorites, which means that over the next six months as he shuffles into history, Nevada’s Machiavelli, his clout waning, will have to be more effective than he has ever been.

***

Shortly after he announced his retirement a little more than a year ago, Harry Reid got back to business.

The Republicans in the state Legislature were trying to change the presidential selection process in Nevada from a caucus to a primary. The state party was in disarray, and the GOP presidential campaigns and key Republican leaders wanted, if possible, to prevent a repeat of 2008 when the Democrats registered 30,000 voters on the day of the caucus, ultimately helping Barack Obama take the state in the general election and keep it Democratic four years later. Even though GOP leaders seemed willing to allow the Democrats to have a caucus, Reid was not satisfied, surely hoping the Republicans would be forced to conduct another disastrous caucus.

As one Democrat, Assemblyman Harvey Munford, considered voting with the Republicans to create a primary, Reid called him from Washington, D.C. and told the African-American legislator he had to stick with Reid for the first black president’s sake. It worked, setting the table for the 2016 cycle. Reid had ensured the Democrats would be able to register thousands of voters, tap into the organizational behemoth he could control and watch as the Republicans struggled to organize their caucus with a state party most of the GOP-elected elite disdained.

This was nothing new for Reid. The meddler-in-chief has been sticking his nose where he thinks it belongs for decades, even reaching as far down as local races, with mixed success. He once recruited a far-right failed congressional candidate to switch to the Democratic Party to try to defeat a Clark County Commission candidate he despised. The plan failed.

Reid often has been accused by other Nevada Democrats—only in whispers, of course—of being mostly concerned about his own preservation. While his maneuvers, especially securing Nevada an early caucus in 2007, also have helped him (in his reelection in 2010), his insularity often blinds partisans to his grandmaster’s ability at the chess game. But the Bobby Fischer of Nevada politics showed his first signs of weakness in 2012. Obama easily won the state, but Reid was unable to keep Rep. Shelley Berkley, who was plagued by a House ethics probe, out of the Senate race. He watched appointed Republican Dean Heller eke out a win.

Then came 2014. Reid not only lost his majority leader’s scepter, but presided over the worst electoral disaster for Democrats in Nevada history. They lost essentially everything, and future leaders such as Secretary of State Ross Miller, Treasurer Kate Marshall and Rep. Steven Horsford were erased.

Despite a four-way Democratic primary to recapture Horsford’s seat (4th District, which covers the urban core of North Las Vegas and stretches into six rural counties), Reid took sides, choosing state Sen. Ruben Kihuen. That district, “needs someone like Ruben, not some pro-Yucca [Mountain], anti-everything, out-of-touch Washington Republican,” said Reid, referring to the proposed nuclear waste dump that Reid has long battled.

In anointing Kihuen, Reid snubbed another Democrat, Lucy Flores, whom he had helped in 2014 run for lieutenant governor, only to see her lose in a landslide, alienating him and his team in the process. Reid made a simple calculation: he knew the Culinary Union, considered the state’s most powerful labor group, would get behind Kihuen, whose mother was a member. And he believed Kihuen was best positioned to recapture the seat as a sitting elected official with unbridled ambition.

Reid called Flores to tell her she was off the team. The call was brief. He then publicly gushed about Kihuen.

This year, Reid failed to recruit a top-tier candidate to run for Heck’s congressional seat (3rd District, which includes suburban Las Vegas and Henderson), finally having to settle on political unknown Jacky Rosen. The past two Democratic nominees, an assembly speaker and the daughter of a former congressman, had been crushed by Heck in woeful campaigns. Only one Democrat had held the seat since it was created in 2001, so it was a difficult sell job even for the master. At least a half-dozen top-tier candidates rebuffed Reid, something not seen … well … ever.

Rosen was a desperation choice. The once-mighty Prince Harry could not even ensure she would avoid a primary. And in attempting to clear the field, Reid created a national controversy. Another unknown, attorney Jesse Sbaih, accused Reid of trying to dissuade him from running because he is a Muslim. Reid insists he never raised Sbaih’s religion, but I confirmed it came up in discussions. Of course it did. The issue would be raised by any political analyst, but Reid, a man without a self-editing mechanism, did it with his usual lack of artfulness. Sbaih, who legally changed his Muslim first name because he understood the possible political damage, pushed the story in Nevada and into national venues, making the man who has repeatedly accused Republicans of intolerance on the Senate floor look like an Islamophobe.

This controversy must be frustrating for Reid, because Heck’s seat, which is evenly divided in registration, is seen by national Democrats as a prime target for a pickup in a presidential year. The Republicans have a crowded primary featuring an establishment choice, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, who is facing a stiff challenge from perennial contender Danny Tarkanian (son of the legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian) and Michele Fiore, best known as a friend of Cliven Bundy and as the woman who first encouraged and then helped defuse the Oregon refuge standoff.

***

Eighteen months after the Reid Machine looked more like a Pinto than a Porsche, it has been rebuilt and turbocharged. The same-day registration during the caucus, the one Reid assured with that call to Munford in Carson City, allowed the Democrats in Nevada to stretch their advantage to almost 60,000 voters. As of the end of March, the Democrats have 501,513 registered voters and the Republicans 441,919. That’s much higher than comparable points in other cycles, and has improved the party’s chances up and down the ticket.

Reid-linked operatives are everywhere, and not just in Nevada, many of them veterans of the miraculous 2010 victory. Lambe remains as engaged as ever, intimately involved with decisions made at every level. She runs the party, makes calls in key races, decides where money will be spent. Zach Hudson, the longtime Reidite who was the Democratic Party spokesman, slid over to be Cortez Masto’s mouthpiece. Megan Jones, who used to work for Reid, is helping his anointed congressional candidate, Kihuen. Cory Warfield, who directed Reid’s 2010 field operation, is overseeing the coordinated campaign. The Reid-dominated caucus staff already has pivoted toward November, organizing in the field and registering voters (they brought in 14,000 new voters on Caucus Day). Reid’s tentacles are not just everywhere; this year he has more than the usual number of them.

But despite Reid’s many moves, the chessboard does not look as favorable as he may have hoped. He is counting on the GOP nominee, especially if it is Donald Trump, to cause down-ticket damage. Reid’s slate, which is not exactly formidable, needs all the help it can get. The man who could once cut off and raise money in any Nevada race has not been as effective as in the past: None of his anointed choices are ahead in the fundraising game.

Polling shows Heck and Cortez Masto in a tossup. And he has $1.3 million more on hand, a substantial advantage. Cortez Masto, who would be the first Latina U.S. senator, will benefit from high Hispanic turnout. But Heck is a more experienced and more facile candidate on the stump.

Kihuen is close to invisible in most polls. Flores, thanks to the name recognition she gained from her Reid-anointed race for lieutenant governor, is in first by a wide margin. And Susie Lee, a wealthy philanthropist, has $200,000 more on hand than Kihuen. Flores also has been embraced by Bernie Sanders, tapping into his fundraising network and populist aura. Kihuen, bolstered by the Culinary Union’s ground game and third-party efforts, still has a good chance.

Rosen, however, is well behind Sbaih, who has put in $400,000 of his own money, in fundraising. He may not spend that money, but he too seems determined to run as an outsider, also endorsing Sanders and recently accusing Reid of excluding him from a meeting in his office attended by other Muslims. Roberson and Tarkanian are looking strong, having raised more than anyone else running, but Team Reid still hopes that they will bloody each other enough to give Rosen a chance in November if she escapes the primary.

***

No matter whether Reid pulls off the ultimate parlay this cycle, his legacy already is sealed. He is the greatest power broker in Nevada history, even more so than the legendary Pat McCarran, for whom the Las Vegas airport is named. If Democrats wonder, as some did in that union meeting two Decembers ago, if Reid has been a net plus, the scales are not even close.

“You had one of the five most powerful people in America, one of the best fundraisers in America, who is your benefactor,” said longtime consultant Billy Vassiliadis. “You guys [Democrats] wouldn’t have what you have.”

But what now?

No one on the horizon is close to as shameless and ruthless, willing to say almost anything or do almost anything to win. Vassiliadis is flummoxed trying to think of someone. “I don’t know who’s going to do it now,” he told me. “I don’t think anyone can replace Reid, and I don’t know of any combination.”

Lambe, who also may recede in the post-Reid era, is more optimistic. “He has made Nevada a nearly permanent battleground [with 2014 being the exception, not the rule] by working to change the electorate and how to run and win campaigns in the state.”

Retirement is unlikely to kill his impulse to enter the fray. Something tells me come 2017, when the Legislature meets, and 2018, when Dean Heller’s Senate seat is up and all the state’s constitutional officers are on the ballot, a phone at Democratic Party headquarters will ring and that soft but firm voice will be on the line.

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