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October 24, 2014

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Sen. Harry Reid seeking votes on hostile turf

Powerful nationally but unpopular at home, Sen. Harry Reid ventures onto campaign trail in places much more friendly to his opponents

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Steve Marcus

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., fields questions at Comma Coffee shop during a campaign stop this month in Carson City.

Harry Reid Tour

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attaches a lock to a chain during a campaign stop in Lovelock, Nev., Wednesday, April 7, 2010. The practice is borrowed from a Chinese tradition where locks with the names of couples are locked onto a chain to ensure everlasting love. Launch slideshow »

Harry Reid Campaign Tour

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) shares the spotlight with Benjamin Syang, 17, who was recently accepted into the Air Force Academy, during a campaign stop at the 88 Cups Coffee & Tea shop in Minden, Nev., Tuesday, April 6, 2010. Launch slideshow »

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s campaign tour stopped at a Minden coffee shop last week, he met rancher Nancy Park, who leaned toward him and said: “I respectfully disagree with what you’re doing for Nevada.”

Ursula McManus, who stood next to Park, shook Reid’s hand silently, her lips frozen in a grimace.

At a Fernley pizza parlor, Robert Diffenderfer, 73, a veteran and biker, simply refused to shake the senator’s extended hand.

Elsewhere along the route, small bands of protesters held mocking signs. One dubbed the campaign trip the “throw Nevada under the bus tour.”

This is the political paradox the 70-year-old senator confronts as he begins to campaign for a fifth, and likely final, term in office: Though powerful in Washington, Reid is, to put it simply, widely despised back home.

Reid’s power and popularity have had an inverse relationship during his 30 years in politics. As he has gained more influence in Washington, he’s struggled to maintain his standing at home — most notably since 2005 when he became Democratic minority and then majority leader of the U.S. Senate. Numerous polls have tracked that decline.

Reid is hardly the first to rise nationally while alienating folks back home. It has happened to U.S. Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman and, most obviously, Tom Daschle, the former South Dakota senator and Senate majority leader who was unseated in 2004. The perception among the discontented constituents is usually the same: He’s no longer one of us, he’s one of them.

It hasn’t helped that while Nevada has been battered by the Great Recession, Reid has been living at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington.

Countering this impression was one aim of the majority leader’s three-day jaunt through Nevada.

He could get ink in the local papers while a film crew collected images of the senator against bucolic Nevada backdrops to send back to Reno and Las Vegas in campaign ads. He could remind voters he’s a native son, with humble roots in sun-bleached Searchlight.

The 13-city tour was also an opportunity for show-and-tell: to walk among solar panels and discuss his efforts to usher in the green economy; to tell people in the rurals how he had boosted funding for counties with federal land; and talk about how he has been a great friend to mining.

In short, he could illustrate the Reid campaign slogan — the majority leader delivers for Nevada like no one else can.

But that is a hard sell in state that has suffered among the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country for two years running. A sign Reid’s bus passed outside Pahrump told that story succinctly: “Foreclosures. Many to Choose From.”

‘They have to know I’m a moderate guy’

The opposition to Reid is as widespread as it is varied.

The animosity of Republicans in the state’s conservative strongholds, like Minden and Fernley, is well known and likely insoluble. Reid, along with President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are the mighty triumvirate in Republican circles, the new axis of evil.

“Pinko Pinky Reid You’re Out,” read a banner on a horse trailer in the parking lot of the Elko Red Lion Hotel, calling Reid by his childhood nickname.

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Protesters picket outside TJ's Pizza Shack in Fernley as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) makes a campaign stop Tuesday, April 6, 2010.

But even among Nevada Democrats, about a quarter are either undecided or supporting the Republican candidate. For liberals who know the old Western-moderate Reid, he’s not one of them even though his rise in the party has more closely associated him with the party’s liberal wing. Some moderate Democrats say he’s moved too far left.

For moderate and right-leaning independents, he has joined in on Washington bailouts and big progressive reforms when they prefer a smaller, more cautious government.

This highlights the tensions between his roles in Democratic leadership and as the senior senator back home.

Reid acknowledges that his role as the Democratic Party’s national opposition leader during the Bush years hurt his standing with Nevada voters.

“They’ve seen me in the last eight years fighting with George Bush, and that’s not who I am,” Reid said. “They have to know I’m a moderate guy.”

Also, in the age of Obama’s efforts at government transparency, he is an old-school politician willing embrace the deal making necessary to win votes in Congress. Reid engineered the Cornhusker Kickback and other deals during the health care debate and makes no apologies.

“That’s how I got the bill passed,” he said in an interview. Merely delivering a good speech wouldn’t get the votes.

But the deals have become liabilities for Democrats and flash points for his critics in Nevada.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) holds "Fifi," a toy poodle belonging to Ron Malone, right, during a campaign stop in Lovelock, Nev., Wednesday, April 7, 2010.

Despite Reid’s place atop the Washington power structure and his campaign’s central argument that he can deliver, a counternarrative has formed questioning what he has done for Nevada lately.

Nevada ranks 50th per-capita in the money it receives from Washington. Reid’s people point out this is because Nevada state government is so stingy in funding education and other programs that it leaves Washington money, much of which comes through matching funds, on the table.

That is true, but for many Nevadans, the federal largesse Reid brings back is largely unseen.

Improving Reid’s image is a huge task for his campaign. The senator must connect with more than 900,000 new voters who have arrived since his last significant re-election challenge, in 1998. This at a time when the economy and voter discontent with Washington are fueling an anti-incumbent mood.

And then there’s the personality problem. Though known for his skills in behind-the-scenes negotiations, in public Reid often has the charisma of an accountant. He can be as uneven on the campaign trail as he is in Washington, charming and witty one moment, awkward and rambling the next.

In Lovelock, Reid hammed it up with a supporter’s patriotically attired poodle, Fifi. At the Copper Mountain solar plant in Boulder City, a worker asked Reid how his day was going. “Not bad, not bad,” Reid said. The conversation ended there, as he spent the next 10 seconds staring at a solar panel.

He is also unwilling to embrace the bravado innate in most politicians. He seems too humble for his own good. When he does talk about accomplishments, Reid lists them in political shorthand, like Bob Dole but worse, leaving a confused conglomeration of policies without a compelling narrative.

At the solar plant, which could grow to become the world’s largest such facility, he reduced his role to simply, “laws we passed.” In Reno, after robust applause for the energy projects coming to the state, Reid said quietly, “I don’t want to boast,” he said, “but a lot of that is things I did.”

In Lovelock, a woman with a question about the health care bill was confused by Reid’s response. It took a campaign volunteer to sort it out.

Part of the campaign’s answer to all this is to tell Reid’s story. As he kicked off the tour at the Searchlight Nugget, one of two small casinos in his hometown, Reid recalled the panic he felt as a boy looking for his father who hadn’t returned home from the mines for dinner. And the relief upon his return.

“You can’t escape who you are,” he said. “My roots are here. No one can take that away from me.”

As the tour stopped in small towns, campaign advisers said they expect a razor-thin margin on Election Day and thus must come to rural Nevada, where Reid is unpopular, to chase every last vote.

Even if stopping in places like Fernley appeared futile, the locales were photogenic props.

The Boulder City solar plant played a starring role, illustrating Reid’s efforts toward an economic turnaround with green jobs and an energy-independent future. It’s an applause line when Reid talks about the solar panels — “1 million solar panels,” he repeats with emphasis — being laid across the desert.

Halfway through the stop at the solar plant, he took off his hard hat, leaned into the wind and chatted with a group of construction workers.

The image of a sea of hard hats reinforced the message that Reid wants to drive home: I can deliver — jobs are here and more are coming.

As camera crews and photographers snapped away, Reid was out of earshot. The campaign team had established an invisible line, keeping the media at a distance as Reid, in jeans and a jacket, talked to the workers. It was all about the pictures.

Attacks on Sue Lowden in full swing

Sue Lowden

Sue Lowden

With Reid’s approval rating in the 30s, and with opinions of him largely cast in stone, dressing up his image will only get the campaign so far. So his campaign is making the election a choice, not a referendum.

It’s a polite way of saying Reid will be trashing his Republican opponent. Though the GOP primary won’t be decided for weeks, the Reid campaign is attacking, on an almost-daily basis, Sue Lowden, the casino owner and former state senator who they view as the likely and most feared opponent.

Even during the bus tour’s made-for-TV moments, Reid made time to criticize Lowden.

He hit Lowden’s record as a state senator for supporting a bill to charge noncombat vets $100 to be buried at state cemeteries. He would later call it a “death tax for veterans.”

And just before he posed for pictures with Fifi in a Lovelock park, Reid ridiculed the former Miss New Jersey’s latest TV ad — a gauzy spot highlighting her USO volunteer work entertaining the troops during the Vietnam War.

“I’m glad she went over there with the other beauty queens,” Reid told reporters, before launching into his long record of support for veterans issues: Bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to build the Veterans Affairs facility in Las Vegas and enhance the one in Reno; passing the new GI bill for returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets; passing legislation to allow vets to collect both their disability and retirement pay.

“I’ve done more than stand there,” Reid said.

Reid’s re-election, however, might not be decided by voters choosing between Republican and Democrat, but rather a bloated ballot. It’s a factor in the race that he discusses openly — and with joy — in TV interviews throughout the tour.

He tells reporters that voters will decide among himself, a Republican, a Tea Party candidate, an Independent American, four nonpartisans — and “none of these candidates,” a category that saved him from retirement in 1998. (That year, as Reid eked out a razor-thin victory, 8,113 people voted for “none of these candidates.”)

“No matter what kind of math you do, I win,” he said.

Trying to understand his detractors

As his campaign bus headed east on Interstate 80 toward Elko, Reid grows quiet as he struggles to answer the obvious questions: Why is he so unpopular in Nevada? And why have Democrats, himself included, been unable to deliver a successful message about the work they have done in Washington, trying to save banks and auto companies and prevent the economy from collapsing?

At one point he says he is pausing to come up with a good answer.

“It’s the economy,” he finally offers.

“I don’t know what other reason it could be,” he says at another point. “I haven’t been involved in any scandals. I haven’t been drunk stumbling around. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is is hugged by supporters after speaking at a rally at UNR in Reno on Tuesday/

Congress has done much to try to fix the economy by passing laws to extend unemployment benefits, prop up the housing market with homebuyer credits, provide mortgage relief and create jobs. But it is not enough, especially in late-to-turn-around Nevada.

“The economy is so bad. People are so fearful,” Reid says.

“It’s getting better every place I go in Nevada,” he says. But, “better is not great.”

Reid is right that Democrats have failed to win political support for their policy successes. That’s partly because they have done a poor job explaining them. For instance, voters conflate the big bank bailout with the economic recovery plan, otherwise known as the stimulus, creating an unstoppable narrative of out-of-control spending in Washington that is difficult to counter.

Despite his shortcomings, Reid is still well liked by many party faithful up and down the state for whom he has done plenty of favors.

Yet senators only campaign every six years and many Nevadans know little about him beyond what they hear on cable news. So Reid is out there telling his life story, of growing up in dusty Searchlight, a town with whorehouses but no churches, and hitchhiking his way to high school in Henderson and a better life.

“It really, for a lack of a better word, offends me when people say Harry Reid doesn’t know about Nevada,” Reid said to cheers at a Reno rally. “Come see me in Searchlight.”

The crowd eats it up. Reid walks off the stage to the opening lines of John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” — “Well I was born in a small town.”

As nearly 100 supporters wait along the rope line, Reid shakes nearly every hand, stopping to sign T-shirts, pose for pictures and listen to compliments whispered in his ear.

“Keep up the good work,” one woman says.

He tells supporters here, as he did at nearly every stop over three days: “I need your help.”

So here he is, among the most powerful politicians in America, sounding vulnerable back home: “A lot of people, many of them from out of state, want to get rid of me.”

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