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August 20, 2014

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With a year-plus to go, rethinking Harry Reid’s race

What has been the conventional wisdom isn’t holding up, some analysts say

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Harry Reid

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Beyond the Sun

The authors of the conventional wisdom in politics thought they knew a few things about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s reelection campaign:

• Reid will have a war chest stocked with enough cash to almost guarantee a victory.

• The cluttered Republican field vying to challenge Reid will be busy beating itself up until after the June primary.

• And the race is best understood as a repeat of the Thune-Daschle smackdown of 2004 — the last time Republicans placed a bounty on the head of a Democratic majority leader.

No sooner was the conventional political wisdom established than a second-take has unearthed evidence to the contrary. Consider these Reid 2010 myth-busters:

• That $25 million war chest the majority leader is assembling? No guarantee it will do the job.

• The cluttered field of Republican challengers? Maybe it’s not as cluttered as it looks.

• The repeat of the Thune-Daschle smackdown of 2004? Not really.

Those were some of the insights from a discussion of the 2010 race headlined over the weekend by Senate analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report at the National Press Club.

Duffy said there’s no question that Reid faces a tough time. He has low poll numbers and the national mood isn’t as friendly to Democrats as it has been recently.

“This is going to be a great but brutal race,” Duffy said.

Before the storyline is set in stone, here is some fresh thinking on the fundamentals as the race gets under way. (That’s right, the 2010 race is getting under way now, a full year from the actual election.)

Can money buy love?

The $25 million war chest Reid intends to build to fuel his reelection is money not seen in a Senate race in Nevada — in fact, the $8.7 million he raised in the previous quarter alone, which ended Sept. 30, was more than has ever been spent by a candidate on a U.S. Senate race in Nevada.

The vast fundraising is helping Reid to launch an early TV advertising blitz to introduce himself to Nevada’s hundreds of thousands of new voters.

Though money helps, “it’s not a 100 percent guaranteed way to win,” Duffy said.

The problem is the law of diminishing returns.

Nevada isn’t California, where a single TV ad can cost millions — 10 times what it does in the Las Vegas and Reno markets. There is no media sinkhole in Nevada down which to pour $25 million.

If a challenger can raise $5 million to $7 million — which is possible, as deep-pocketed donors from across the country figure to give in hopes of toppling Reid — the opponent will have enough money to keep pace even with 80 percent less cash.

“If they can do that,” Duffy said, “then Reid’s money doesn’t have the return and the kick.”

Will the crowded GOP field cannibalize itself?

Many observers say the Republican challengers in a wide-open field will beat each other up in a hard-fought primary. The numerous candidates have left the party without an early favorite to rally around and support.

That’s true.

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A screenshot from a video posted on Danny Tarkanian's campaign Web site.

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Sue Lowden

But when you survey the field of about 10 potential Republican challengers, Duffy said, it narrows quickly to two: former state Republican Party boss Sue Lowden and basketball-star-turned-businessman Danny Tarkanian.

“There are two candidates who matter right now,” Duffy said.

Duffy judges the seriousness of a candidate on several factors: the quality of the campaign team assembled, the ability to craft a message and stick with it, and fundraising prowess.

Lowden and Tarkanian “are the only two candidates I see doing this,” she said. “I don’t see evidence of that right now from anyone else in this race.”

Although Mark Amodei, John Chachas, Chuck Kozak, Sharron Angle and the others may have a following in the state, they’ve got to step it up to be taken seriously inside the Beltway.

A Daschle-Thune redux?

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Some analysts see similarities in the situations of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, pictured, who was defeated in 2004, and Nevada's Sen. Harry Reid this year.

Much has been made of how the Reid race is (or isn’t) a repeat of the 2004 race in which then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was ousted by Republican John Thune.

Tarkanian’s team sent out a reminder last week that Daschle, too, started running TV ads more than a year before his election.

But Duffy said the Reid-Daschle comparison “isn’t quite true.”

Thune was a much stronger candidate than those running against Reid, as the state’s former congressman (South Dakota has just one member of the House) who had narrowly lost a statewide Senate race two years earlier.

And the states are much different. South Dakota is a strong Republican state, while Nevada now has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

True, Reid carries the baggage of the majority leader’s job as Daschle did, and suffers the partisan overexposure that comes from being the leader that voters back home do not always like.

But what could be more troubling for Reid is the trend line that shows voters moving away from the Democratic Party. A year ago, voters nationally favored Democrats by 11 percentage points over Republicans. Today, that gap has narrowed to 6 percentage points.

The shift has been strongest among independents, Duffy said.

“Voters are ticked off,” Duffy said. “They’re ticked off at what they see as too much government in people’s lives.”

Which leaves the question: If voters voted for Barack Obama last fall, as Nevadans did by delivering a 12 percentage point victory, what part of “change you can believe in” do they no longer believe in?

“Part of it is the speed with which change is happening,” Duffy said.

And part of it is the lack of any change in the partisan tone Obama promised to fix in Washington.

Reid, as majority leader, is a symbol of both — the change, and the lack thereof.

And that will help to make the long road to 2010, as Duffy put it, a brutal one.