Published Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010 | 8:40 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
In a signature display of tactical prowess and tenacity, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s methodical and at-times Machiavellian campaign plan, years in the making, allowed him to survive an anti-incumbent wave Tuesday, in which his party lost control of the U.S. House and left him with a thin majority in the U.S. Senate.
Reid not only overcame the lethally-low approval rating that had pundits locally and nationally declaring his pursuit of a fifth term hopeless, but also successfully inoculated himself against the fervent Tea Party movement that had found a champion in Republican challenger Sharron Angle.
“Yes, we did,” Reid told a cheering crowd at Aria on the Las Vegas Strip, where Democrats gathered to watch election returns. “Today Nevada chose hope over fear.”
Yet Nevada voters showed little enthusiasm in returning the quintessential incumbent to office.
“Harry Reid always seems to find a way to win,” GOP strategist Greg Ferraro said. “He never wins big and he never wins pretty, and the rumors of his demise are always greatly exaggerated. He always finds a way.”
This time around, Reid’s path to re-election began with a sustained investment in party infrastructure, continued with a varied effort to clear the field of formidable opponents and culminated with the domination of his opponent.
By Tuesday, voters may have remained disgusted with Reid and unhappy with his pursuit of a Democratic agenda, but — thanks to Reid’s $20 million effort to define his opponent as extreme and dangerous — their disgust with Angle ran deeper.
“I can’t believe she was even on the ballot,” said Alice Hatfield, a Las Vegas Republican who voted for Reid. “Doing away with Social Security, Medicaid, privatizing the VA — no way. Harry needs to go, but there’s nobody on the ballot to replace him.”
Aware that his leadership position would increase the negative opinion of him among Nevada voters, as well as saddle him as a top national target, Reid began working as early as 2005 to build a campaign organization to withstand the political forces that would align against him.
He identified top Republicans who posed a significant danger, and helped to land them important appointments to keep them out of the race, such as the federal bench in the case of then-Nevada Attorney General and now Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval or the Ways and Means committee for U.S. Rep. Dean Heller.
Add to that a decimated Nevada GOP, and Republicans failed to field a single formidable candidate, and instead had a crowded primary of B-listers.
Again, Reid’s campaign prowess kicked in, leading to the defeat of the more moderate front-runner, Sue Lowden, and clearing the way for Angle, who was easier for him to define and marginalize.
However, Nevada’s economy continued to collapse, and the typical midterm antagonism for the party in power evolved into outright hostility, nationally and at home.
Against that backdrop, Reid’s path to victory seemed more than uncertain. Angle quickly rallied after her primary win and set about raising more than $14 million, which she used to pummel Reid on the economy and immigration.
But even with ideal circumstances for an upset, her effort fell short.
In a reflection of the bitter destroy-the-opponent-at-all-costs ad war that characterized the race, many voters interviewed at polls across the state said they hated both choices. Reid’s campaign seized on that dynamic, driving a wedge between Angle’s fervent base and moderate Republicans, who found her unacceptable.
“I’ve watched Sharron Angle and she’s nuts,” said Reno Republican Richard Hill, who voted for Reid.
In a telling statistic, 3,000 more Republicans than Democrats voted early in Angle’s home Washoe County, but Reid still trounced her in early voting returns.
Many Angle voters saw their ballot choice more as a protest of Reid’s policies than an endorsement of Angle’s views.
“I’m not 100 percent Sharron Angle, but I am 100 percent against Harry Reid,” said Joseph Gomez, a Reno retiree who cast his vote for Angle.
“I’ve been in this state 35 years and I’m sick of Reid,” said Zach MacDowell, a Las Vegas Republican who voted for Angle. “He shut me down when I worked at the test site, and I think Yucca Mountain should be up. That’ll bring a lot of jobs to Nevada.”
Similarly, Reid voters seemed more convinced by the Democrat’s effort to cast his opponent as an extremist than his argument that Nevada could use his seniority.
“I voted for Reid reluctantly, because he’s a henchman for Obama,” said Lawrence Levine, a Las Vegas Democrat. “Nevada had a real problem with the two candidates on the ballot. Angle revealed that she’s no kind of leader.”
Hispanic voters proved key to Reid’s victory.
Despite earlier polling data that indicated Hispanics would skip this election, exit polls showed they accounted for a record 16 percent of total voters.
That turnout was likely backlash to an ad aired by a Republican operative explicitly telling Hispanics not to vote, as well as inflammatory ads from Angle’s campaign that used images of Hispanic youth dressed as gang members.
Xavier Caballos, a Mexican immigrant and Las Vegas Democrat who voted for Reid, said Angle had tried to make people like him look dangerous.
“That was the final straw,” said Gilberto Ramirez, a Reno concrete worker who recently obtained his citizenship and voted for the first time. “She was depicting me as a gang member. I served seven years in the Marine Corps.”
Reid’s political career has been as much a history of close scrapes as smooth landings.
He lost his first U.S. Senate race in 1974 by 600 votes. He won his 1998 Senate re-election against John Ensign by an even narrower 428 votes.
Even his closest friends admit that Reid is, and always has been, a terrible campaigner. But even his sharpest critics don’t necessarily question his dedication to the state of Nevada.
“We really respect Reid for the way he stood up to the big gangs years ago,” said Don Cooper, a Las Vegas Republican who voted for Angle. “But the last few years he’s gotten too liberal. I wish to heck Angle had not run, but it’s the least of two evils.”
Other voters, however, said Reid’s leadership role distracted his attention from the state.
“I just don’t think we can stand any more nonparticipation in our state,” said Steve Zielinski, a Reno Republican.
Reid’s career has spanned many sea changes in Washington, and the erstwhile senator has adapted to become a product of his environment, especially as he rose through the ranks of his party to take over its top post.
Today, being a “centrist” sometimes means being a spoiler, but as far as the Democratic Party goes, Reid has a history of being close to its center. Historically, he broke with his party to support gun rights, the death penalty, missile military spending, and take a staunchly anti-abortion position.
But as he moved through the ranks, Reid began to embrace some of the more liberal policies of the Democratic Party. Perhaps most marked was his shift on immigration policy. He opposed the 1986 bill that granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants in the United States; but in 2007, he led the effort, working across the aisle with Republican senators like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain, and pulling out every arcane legislative strategy he could to push a comprehensive bill through.
As leader, many say Reid epitomized how to run a caucus in difficult times. He was tough enough to demand party loyalty for certain votes, but smart enough to know when things were a lost cause. He played his hand, persuasive or punishing, behind the scenes for the most part, letting other senators rise and fall in public.
But even as Reid changed with the times, in his congressional role, he remained at heart a senator of the old guard, which means being governed by one golden rule: state first.
In recent years, his clout as majority leader has helped him further causes in Nevada’s interest. It was due to Reid’s influence, for example, that so many stimulus dollars and government loan guarantees were steered to Nevada to ensure that the newest wave industry in the United States — renewable energy — would get a special edge in the Silver State.
But there’s no question what Reid was most passionate about as a local issue: the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Reid, not one to seek out the limelight, made his mark on the issue during his first year as a senator, when he attempted to stage a filibuster of the annual energy appropriations bill to keep it from designating Yucca as the country’s only nuclear waste dump site. The “Screw Nevada” bill eventually passed, but 27 other senators joined Reid in voting against it.
Today, he is credited with steering the Obama administration through every administrative step possible toward finally killing the controversial project.
Reid’s turnout efforts focused strongly on the Hispanic community, a key swing demographic in Nevada elections. Early polling suggested Hispanics wouldn’t turn out because of frustration with the economy and a lack of movement on immigration reform.
Meanwhile, Republicans launched an effort to convince voters that choosing “none of these candidates” would help Reid — a message that seemed to penetrate.
“We just don’t have a very good choice,” Steven Zielinski, a Republican who voted for Obama in 2008, said shaking his head. “But (none of the above) would be a non-vote. You might as well vote for Reid.”
Excerpt from Reid's speech Tuesday night:
"Today Nevada chose hope over fear. Nevada chose to move forward, not backwards. Nevada made this choice because we know it's not about us versus them. It's about every Nevadan, all of us, in this together.
"Today you made possible what many called impossible and I'm grateful you did, not for me but for the future we all share as Nevadans.
"It's always been my honor to represent the state, to serve the state and to fight for the state and to fight for each of you. And friends, I'm not finished fighting. In fact, tonight I'm more determined than ever.
"You see I've been in some pretty tough fights in my day. They've been in the street, in a boxing ring, and in the United States Senate. But I have to admit, this has been one of the toughest. But it's nothing compared to the fights families are facing all over Nevada right now. This race has been called but the fight is far from over.
"The bell that just rang isn't the end of the fight. It's the start of the next round.
"I know that a lot of Nevadans feel like they've been counted out. But you know I know what that's like. I've taken on powerful forces ... I've run into some tough elections no one thought I could win. So I know what it's like to have the odds stacked against you. I know what it's like to take a punch. I've taken a few but more importantly I know what it's like to get back on one's feet. My story and this night prove that difficult isn't synonymous with impossible.
"We're proof that a test is tough only if you're not tough. My career and this campaign have been driven by a simple belief. If a poor kid from Searchlight can make it, anybody can make it.
"Everyone in Nevada deserves a chance. Everyone in America deserves a chance. Nevada is going to recover. Nevada is going to prosper, and Nevada is going to lead. We're going to bounce back stronger than ever. I've never counted Nevada out and I'm not about to start right now. I think you know that about me.
"Tomorrow morning there will still be too few jobs for too many people. There will still be too many foreclosure signs in too many front yards. There will still be too many kids in crowded classrooms. And too many students wondering how can they afford college.
"But your hard work, and it's been really hard, has given Nevada a chance to believe again that tomorrow isn't impossible."