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December 22, 2014

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politics:

Home state finds it hard to warm up to Reid

Though he’s delivered for Nevada, his positions, persona rankle many

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Sam Morris

Sen. Harry Reid speaks at a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at the Four Seasons.

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A sign in Ely expresses disapproval of Nevada's Democratic senator. Liberals in his own party as well as conservatives have beefs with Reid.

Chamber of Commerce luncheon

Sen. Harry Reid speaks at a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at the Four Seasons. Launch slideshow »

Lincy Foundation gives UNLV $14 million gift

UNLV President Neal Smatresk speaks at the official announcement of a $14 million grant from Kirk Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation to fund the creation of The Lincy Institute at UNLV Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009. Launch slideshow »

$14 Million for UNLV

Kirk Kerkorian through his Lincy Foundation has given UNLV a $14 million grant in honor of his longtime friend Senator Harry Reid. The grant will fund the creation of the Lincy Institute at UNLV, which will work to unite local non-profits.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has achieved a political stature in the corridors of power unparalleled in Nevada history — able to dial up President Barack Obama, bring top officials to Las Vegas and shower the state with unprecedented attention.

Such clout can be cause for celebration in some states, leading to an enduring bond between senator and voter. Not so in fiercely independent Nevada, where Reid, who despite his position and four terms representing the state in Washington, is not necessarily a beloved figure.

According to polls over the past three years, Reid’s approval rating hovers in the mid-30s, not a comfortable range heading into a reelection campaign. Reid’s internal campaign polls, however, show him doing decidedly better.

As Reid seeks reelection in 2010, a question arises: Just how unpopular is the top-ranking Senate Democrat in his home state?

On both sides of the political aisle, evidence of Nevadans’ discontent stacks up. His rise in national politics as the leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate has only complicated his relationship with skeptical voters across the political spectrum.

On the right, conservatives lampoon Reid as a symbol of all that is wrong with Washington, a liberal in the likeness of that other target of Republican scorn, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (“This is the only part of the country where Harry Reid is considered a liberal,” notes political scientist Ted Jelen at UNLV.)

His remarks in the service of partisanship — calling former President George W. Bush a loser, saying the war in Iraq is lost — have won few friends among conservatives in Nevada, a state with a libertarian streak as long as U.S. Highway 95.

On the left, liberals are frustrated that his Senate is often the place where Democratic dreams go to die — despite his almost single-handedly derailing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, banning new coal plants and launching a green energy future. He is leading President Barack Obama’s agenda on economic recovery and health care but isn’t seen by some as knocking heads hard enough, LBJ-style, to get health care done. They long for a leader who is less compromising.

And then there’s Reid himself.

Those who know him adore his quick, dry wit. But in public, when Reid isn’t issuing a barb that makes national news, his speech is often the one the audience forgot. Some call it a charisma gap. As one state Republican Party leader says, “d-u-l-l.”

Personal interactions can be rough around the edges. Reid is the son of the pioneer West, a frank-speaking upstart from the forlorn town of Searchlight. He often gives one-word quips, doesn’t suffer fools and hangs up on phone conversations — not out of anger, but simply because he thinks the call is done.

That makes some Nevadans squirm and others chuckle in Western realpolitik.

Bob Fulkerson, one of the leaders of Nevada’s liberal wing of the Democratic Party as director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, recounts his own brush with Reid during inauguration week festivities this year in Washington. Excited to join the senator’s fundraiser at a downtown restaurant, Fulkerson strode toward Reid to shake his hand.

Upon seeing him, Reid pushed a camera at Fulkerson and said, “Oh good, Bob, take a picture,” and gathered other guests. Fulkerson dutifully snapped the shot, had a quick exchange with Reid, then slunk away, embarrassed. His companion noted that he had been squarely dissed.

“I don’t fault Reid any more for that,” Fulkerson said. “It’s just part of who he is.”

If the race were held today, Reid would be beaten by either of two potential Republican challengers, according to a recent Review-Journal poll. Even Democrats are unenthusiastic, according to another poll, paid for by unidentified Republican backers of Sue Lowden, the former state legislator and one-time television newscaster who is now the Nevada Republican Party chairwoman and considering a run against Reid.

Reid’s own polls show him running at least even with the top potential Republican challengers.

Conventional wisdom says that although Reid’s numbers may be troubling, Republicans need a viable candidate — emphasis on viable. They have yet to name one.

“Just because Nevada voters aren’t enamored with Reid doesn’t mean he’s going to lose,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.

Reid’s campaign is preparing to reintroduce the senator to Nevada, telling the state’s 400,000 new voters the story of the dirt poor kid from dusty Searchlight who went on to lead the Senate and deliver big for his state.

Television is where the campaign will be waged, experts predict, and some expect ads could begin as soon as Labor Day.

Rothenberg has Reid at a narrow advantage to win.

•••

Reid has rarely polled well in his politically split home state, where independent voters often decide elections.

During the senator’s last serious challenge, in 1998, when then-Rep. John Ensign lost by just 428 votes, polls showed Reid’s double-digit lead quickly eroding to single digits.

But it wasn’t until Reid became leader of the Democratic Party in Washington that his numbers began an enduring nosedive.

Nevadans may have a distaste for Washington power, but Jelen, the UNLV professor, said there is nothing new in Reid’s popularity dip.

Former majority leaders, from Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota to Sen. Scott Lucas of Illinois, have faced similar troubles. The position forces them to serve two constituents — the party agenda in Washington and needs of a state back home.

Daschle and Lucas lost reelection. Reid’s race will stand as an example of lessons learned.

“This is history playing itself out again,” Jelen said.

Walking this political line between party leadership and serving his state takes great skill. Reid’s main strength as majority leader, his campaign always says, is that “he can deliver for Nevada like no one else.”

With his vast staff, Reid can bring greater resources to bear than any other Nevada elected official. With his institutional power and personal relationships, he can dial up cabinet secretaries or fellow senators to get things done.

Case in point: Derailing Yucca Mountain is a phenomenal feat by many measures, capping Nevada’s 20-year battle against the federal government’s plan to store nuclear waste in the desert. First Reid cut funding, then extracted a presidential promise to kill it outright.

As Reid rose in leadership, so did Nevada’s take of congressionally-directed earmarked money, from $77 million in 2001 to $165 million in 2009. Of that, $144 million this year is directly from Reid, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. (Nevada’s other senator, Republican John Ensign, brought home half as much.)

Among the 100 senators, Reid ranks 25th this year in securing earmarks.

Even Republican elected officials in Nevada say, quietly, that if they need something done, they go to Reid.

“You can’t argue with what the guy has accomplished for Nevada and the country,” said John Hunt, an attorney and former chairman of Clark County Democrats.

“Harry Reid is real. Isn’t that what we want from somebody, to be consistent and sincere and not put on a front?” he said. “In the end you measure somebody by their accomplishments, not their smile. His accomplishments are unbelievable, what he’s done for this state.”

Republicans are targeting that strength as a weakness, asking what exactly Reid has done for Nevada.

“I’m not sure Sen. Reid has explained what benefits Nevada has received, other than Yucca Mountain,” said Ryan Erwin, a Republican strategist in Nevada.

This is phase one of a Republican strategy to portray Reid — as they did to Daschle in 2004 — as out of touch with home-state voters. Nevada Republican strategist Robert Uithoven calls this the “disconnect.”

The strategy begins with bacon, ends with yoga mats and goes like this:

Republicans are targeting Reid for not bringing enough federal taxpayer money back to Nevada.

It’s a fragile line of attack for a party that derides earmarks as waste and opposed Reid’s work in passing the economic recovery bill that beefed up unemployment benefits, launched road projects and is paying salaries for Nevada teachers who would otherwise have been laid off. It also ignores that Nevada often gets less federal money than other states because Carson City refuses to put up required matching funds.

Still, it’s a sound-bite that internal Republican polls say might resonate in a state that’s hurting economically.

Then there’s the yoga strategy.

A small news item this month noted Reid and his entourage had stopped to buy a yoga mat during his recent visit to a conference in Denver.

A former boxer, Reid has made no secret of an exercise routine, which includes yoga, walking and hundreds of sit-ups. But for the political right, yoga is a passion of latte-sipping coastal elites who can be easily mocked.

One Republican strategist had a brainstorm: Harry Reid yoga mat campaign magnets. “I can see Harry Reid yoga mats up and down the state,” Uithoven said.

•••

Among Democrats, Reid has his own problems.

He has gained few fans with his support of a plan to tap rural White Pine County’s water for Las Vegas, support of gun owners’ rights and backing of the state’s gold mining industry.

And sometimes Nevadans of various political stripes just feel ignored by Reid.

He works long days and nights in Washington, then flies across the country to raise money for the party. Yet some Nevadans would rather see him meeting-and-greeting at the local chicken dinner.

“When we need to talk to him directly, yea, it’s difficult,” said Fulkerson of the progressive group. “We don’t have his cell phone.”

Reid’s staff notes that the senator’s packed schedule took him from Pahrump to Las Vegas to Reno this past week alone.

But as much as feeling left out may sting, it is not a fireable offense, Fulkerson said.

Think of Nevada without Reid, he suggests, recalling the last time Nevada had two first-term senators with no clout in Washington: 1987, the year the so-called Screw Nevada bill was passed, naming Yucca Mountain as the site of the nation’s proposed nuclear waste dump.

“Matching Harry Reid against Sue Lowden, for god-sakes, it’s a no-brainer. Of course we’re going to turn out for Harry Reid.”

•••

Reid’s popularity will rest as much on the mood of the state as Election Day approaches as anything else — whether the economy has turned around and voters approve of the Democratic agenda that they helped launch by sending Obama to Washington.

Reid’s race will likely be won in the middle — the 15 percent of independent voters who claim no party allegiance. For the senator who once ran on the slogan “independent like Nevada,” the party leader has to remind voters he remains one of them.

Reid’s mouth may run partisan, but his actions hew more toward the center, as he tries to do what he does best: broker a deal. That style infuriates some and disheartens others, but may be what it takes for a majority leader to get reelected in Nevada, popular or not.

“Harry Reid,” said Jelen, the UNLV professor, “is never going to win by a landslide here.”

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