With the president unpopular and stuck cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor, the midterm elections were likely to go strongly against his party. In Nevada, though, a veteran of close statewide campaigns bucked the trend, winning against an opponent too conservative for some in his divided party and with a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
That was the 1974 Senate election. Republican former Gov. Paul Laxalt had no chance, thanks to Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon and a disastrous economy. Nonetheless, he beat a young Democrat named Harry Reid by 611 votes.
This year, Reid learned from his tough losses and narrow victories—such as his 428-vote landslide in 1998 over Republican John Ensign, then a rising star and now every other Nevada politico’s favorite dartboard. He learned from the defeat of his friend and predecessor as Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, in 2004. But Reid may be among the few who did learn from these experiences.
Nevadans haven’t learned. Almost 45 percent were willing to give up the majority leader’s power when their state needs influential senior senators not just to make good things happen, but to stop bad things from happening.
Republicans haven’t learned. They stripped Bill Raggio of his state Senate leadership post, just when they need him for negotiating the budget and redistricting, because he saw Sharron Angle for what she is and joined every other sane Nevada Republican in endorsing Reid.
Many lefties haven’t learned. They dismissed Reid’s leadership and political acumen, which got them a health-care bill that had eluded the country for decades. But it’s Reid’s colleague Russ Feingold, a liberal from Wisconsin, a state with a truly progressive tradition, who’s gone from the Senate—not Reid.
The R-J hasn’t learned. It did its best or worst, depending on your point of view, to Reid, skewing its coverage every which way but loose. “Loose” kind of rhymes with “news,” and that’s what the R-J should concentrate on.
Many political analysts from outside Nevada haven’t learned. Now they point to Reid’s ground game, cunning and tenacity, when all have been in full view for years. He survived the 1974 defeat, an embarrassing loss the next year for mayor and a tough tenure as Gaming Commission chair, taking on the mob and facing accusations of ties to the mob and threats on his life and reputation. He elevated Nevada’s caucus into a high spot in the 2008 presidential race that helped build up his party.
These kinds of efforts may have eased the losses that Nevada Democrats suffered as Republicans swept to victory across the country. After benefiting from the Obama wave in 2008, Dina Titus ran a strong campaign but barely lost to Joe Heck. Democrats lost a state Senate seat (in Titus’s House district) and two Assembly seats (one in her district), all of which suggests the mountain she and other Democrats had to climb, and scaled far better than hindsight suggests they should have.
It’s also possible that, rather than helping, Reid hurt other candidates. Some of it was unavoidable: Republicans painted a big bull’s-eye on him, so the Senate race became a proxy war and, as Titus said, monopolized attention. Those who might have given money to other Democrats may have concentrated on Reid, although that didn’t stop Republicans from aiding both Angle and Heck. Getting out voters who would support Reid may have motivated conservative Democrats, Republicans and independents who had no use for any other Democrat, despite Titus’ efforts to link Heck to Angle.
Few made the connection that Angle’s anti-Hispanic commercials appeared while Brian Sandoval campaigned for governor, and while Hispanics reportedly voted for Rory Reid, their numbers weren’t enough. For all the talk of one too many Reids on the ballot, the candidate for governor was in a spot: If he played the underdog role too well, he might hurt his father’s chances. What if Rory Reid had called for taxing mining as much as it should be taxed, or ran a pro-Clark County and thus anti-Washoe County campaign? Did getting out Hispanics help Sandoval, too?
Titus and one of the Reids deserved better. But Nevada could have done much, much worse—for itself and the country.