As the leader of Senate Democrats looking to expand their majority in November, Harry Reid has become a darling of the left, bashing President Bush, confabbing with liberal bloggers and relishing his role as a national target for conservative ad campaigns.
But back home in Nevada, the Senate majority leader is quietly launching a “lessons learned from Tom Daschle” strategy as he eyes his own run for reelection in 2010.
Reid is doing regular interviews with conservative Nevada talk show hosts, promoting Nevada energy initiatives and hosting a bipartisan energy summit in Las Vegas this month.
He recently hired his former chief of staff, Susan McCue, as a consultant to strengthen his home state message. And over the August recess, Reid is in Nevada meeting with his top political advisers, including McCue and his son Rory Reid, a Clark County commissioner, to chart out a 2010 strategy that focuses almost completely on Nevada rather than his national profile.
“His 2010 strategy is Nevada, Nevada, Nevada,” McCue said. “It’s daily outreach to Nevada on every level.”
To that end, Reid makes sure he’s to the right of Democrats on issues such as mining while remaining a major advocate for labor unions, which have a huge presence in the casino industry. He’s ramped up his conference calls with key Nevada groups, including firefighter and teachers organizations. He’s planning to offer up clean fuel energy measures that would specifically help his state as part of the national energy policy.
He remains anti-abortion and pro-gun-rights, staying in line with Nevadans but out of touch with Democrats nationwide on those issues.
One Democratic aide said McCue’s job is to “watch Reid’s back” back home in Nevada, and she has spent more time on Nevada messaging rather than on his national profile.
Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman in Washington, downplays the Nevada-centric strategy. He says Reid is simply “working very hard to maintain his independence given his position as leader.” The outreach to conservative talk radio? Reid is just trying “to introduce himself to thousands of new Nevadans that move into the state every month,” Manley said.
The question facing Reid in 2010: Will Nevada voters — new and old — continue to see him as the son of a miner from Searchlight, or will they view him as just another Washington insider who fell under the sway of the liberal establishment?
It’s a question that echoes from 2004. Four years ago, John F. Kerry seemed to have President Bush on the ropes, and Tom Daschle might have had the luxury of imagining life working with a new Democratic president. But in November 2004, Bush beat Kerry and John Thune beat Daschle, making the South Dakota Democrat the first sitting Senate leader to lose his seat in 52 years.
Democrats stress that Nevada, a fast-growing state with a steady increase in Democratic registrations, will not be nearly as strong a Republican state as South Dakota was in 2004.
And if — as expected — Democrats pick up additional Senate seats in November, Reid may have a little more room to maneuver. With a more comfortable Senate margin, he could find the freedom to tweak a few votes to show his independence to Nevada voters.
“He has to balance his image out to make sure he’s not too far out of touch,” said Steve Sebelius, editor of the alternative weekly Las Vegas CityLife and a longtime Nevada political columnist. “He’s mastered that strategy. Harry Reid is very concerned with the survival of Harry Reid.”
“He’s smart, he’s shrewd and he’s a chameleon,” said one Nevada Republican source. “He will transform himself.”
But the 2010 election is still 27 months away, giving Reid some time to show some colors he might choose to change down the line.
Last month, Reid was the guest host on a show called meetthebloggers.org, speaking with bloggers from HuffingtonPost and OpenLeft.com. He praised the role of bloggers in American political discourse, imploring them to help “push back against the Republican harangue.” In May, Reid held a blogger-only pen and pad at the Capitol with Daily Kos and ThinkProgress and other popular left-leaning Web outlets.
Reid receives at least guarded praise from every corner of the liberal blogosphere. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says the Netroots are disappointed with Reid’s inability to help end the war in Iraq, but he says Reid’s office “is far more responsive and available” than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office has been.
Matt Stoller of OpenLeft says the blogosphere’s relationship with the Democratic leadership has been “rocky” but adds that liberal bloggers “immediately liked Reid when he took over because he was partisan.”
Reid’s office insists that nothing in his political views has changed. He is still anti-abortion, favors Second Amendment rights and is generally more socially conservative than other Democrats. But he has become somewhat of a hero to the left by calling Bush a “loser” and Alan Greenspan a “hack.” Bloggers eat that sort of rhetoric for breakfast.
“I don’t want it to seem like it’s a big lovefest for Harry Reid in the Netroots. But we respect him,” Moulitsas said. “Harry Reid is, on a lot of issues, a good ally. That’s the highest praise we can give.”
Statistically speaking, Reid’s voting pattern has evolved over the past decade as well: The longer he’s been in the Senate, the more he has been a reliable Democratic vote. According to Congressional Quarterly, Reid voted with his party 74 percent of the time in 1995. Last year, his party unity score was 95 percent.
On national security issues over the past 18 months, Reid has consistently voted with stalwart Senate liberals such as Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Barbara Boxer of California.
“You really have seen this evolution of skepticism about Reid, who is not a liberal Democrat, to now where you see him take on the classic national liberal Democratic leadership profile,” said longtime Reid watcher Erik Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno. “When he comes back [to Nevada], he’s still Harry Reid from Searchlight, Nev. But he’s now one of them — the Democratic elite.”
Although that may be a liability, it also comes with some advantages. As majority leader, Reid was able to help orchestrate the move to build the Nevada presidential caucus into a national event in January. The caucuses were wildly successful, drawing 118,000 participants, compared with just 9,000 in 2004.
The payoff for Reid: The caucuses featured same-day registration, adding so many Democrats to the voter rolls that the party now holds a 60,000-voter advantage over the GOP in voter registrations statewide — quite a feat for a state that was majority Republican in registrations in the last cycle.
Nevada Republicans don’t even have a potential candidate yet. Rep. Jon C. Porter, a moderate Republican who faces a tough reelection in his suburban Las Vegas district, is often named as a possible contender. But beyond him, the Republican bench in Nevada is thin, thanks in part to Reid’s political dominance of the state.