Rory Reid’s Dilemma

Is the gubernatorial candidate’s connection to Dad hurting him?

If only Rory Reid were somebody else’s son. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee can’t seem to escape his father’s unpopularity, and that, the conventional wisdom goes, is why he’s down by double digits in the polls.

He tried dropping his last name from his campaign materials, but that just made it worse. National media outlets took notice and wrote about how Sen. Harry Reid’s son was attempting to escape the burden of his parentage. A Bloomberg headline shouted, “Reid So Toxic His Son Campaigns Without Last Name.” The Los Angeles Times noted that Rory has plenty of ideas and plenty of money; the problem was “that last name, Reid.”

If the campaign had hoped the “just Rory” gambit would establish the candidate as his own man, it appeared to have exactly the opposite effect, tying him inextricably to his father while highlighting their uncomfortable political relationship.

But rather than an explanation, the name issue may be a convenient scapegoat for the campaign’s ailing fortunes, political observers say. There are plenty of other possible reasons Rory Reid finds himself so far behind.

First of all, there’s the message. Reid’s one-note hammering on the education issue, which has been the subject of most of his television ads, mystifies some Democratic political operatives. “They’ll tell you that education is people’s top issue, but it’s just not true,” says one consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everybody knows the budget, jobs and this recession-slash-depression is what people are thinking about right now.”

It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and second-guess someone else’s campaign strategy, of course. Reid’s campaign hasn’t wasted time in aggressively going after his Republican opponent, former federal judge Brian Sandoval, claiming Sandoval would lay off thousands of teachers and challenging him to debate. But another Democratic campaign veteran wondered when Reid’s campaign plans to bring up Sandoval’s record. “He’s got a record in the Assembly, a record as attorney general. He was on the gaming commission; did they give a license to somebody sleazy? He’s got a judicial record; there’s got to be someone who’s not happy with one of his rulings.”

Meanwhile, some supporters wish Reid would take bolder stands to draw a contrast with Sandoval. Like his opponent, he won’t say exactly how he would balance the budget in the face of the state’s enormous looming budget gap.

Reid spokesman Mike Trask defended the campaign’s strategy, saying Reid believes education is the key to economic development and recovery. Sandoval, he says, benefited from his competitive primary, which put him in front of voters early and contrasted him with unpopular Gov. Jim Gibbons. “[Reid’s] campaign is really just getting started,” Trask says.

Some of Reid’s problems aren’t his fault. For example, no matter what he does, it’s hard for him to get noticed when his father’s Senate contest is a bigger story. “How does anyone running for governor get any traction or momentum when you can’t get anybody to pay attention to anything except the Senate race?” says Democratic consultant Jim Ferrence, who is not involved in either Reid campaign. In a sense, this is Harry Reid’s presence on the ballot hurting Rory Reid, but the overshadowing effect would be the same no matter who the Democratic nominee was.

Another factor that would be hurting any Democratic nominee is this year’s electoral climate. Across the country, a Republican storm appears to be brewing. It’s normal to see a backlash in the election following a historic sweep like the one Democrats pulled off in 2008. Forecasters expect the GOP to make large gains in the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and on down the ticket.

All of these factors were things Rory Reid could have anticipated when he got into the campaign, and in fact, he did. Two years ago, when he was first considering the race, Reid commissioned a poll to test the waters, as political analyst Jon Ralston reported at the time. One of the questions asked voters whether they’d prejudge Reid based on his family ties or evaluate him on his own merits. Naturally, when phrased that way, a large majority said they’d judge the man, not the name.

What Reid couldn’t have anticipated two years ago was that Sandoval would quit his lifetime appointment on the federal bench to run for governor. In that long-ago poll, Reid hoped he might have the luxury of running against Gibbons; and even if Gibbons lost, the alternatives were the relatively unknown former state Sen. Joe Heck (who is running for Congress instead) and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon (who, along with Gibbons, lost in the primary to Sandoval).

Harry Reid has the seemingly good fortune to be up against Republican Sharron Angle, who’s coming to be viewed as negatively as he is. Sandoval, on the other hand, is viewed far more favorably than Rory Reid, according to polls.

Unfortunately for Rory Reid, his opponent may be his biggest problem. Even Democrats concede that, on paper at least, Sandoval is “the whole package”—moderate, Hispanic, gubernatorial-looking and with a record of winning statewide elections. It’s not clear if Sandoval is much of a campaigner, but with his campaign mostly keeping him under wraps, he can sit on his lead and not worry about making gaffes.

“In the gubernatorial race, you’ve got two candidates who are both well-qualified, smart and likable enough,” Republican consultant Ryan Erwin says. “Voters are going to elect the candidate they like and trust the most. In the Senate race, on the other hand, people are going to vote for the candidate they hate less.”