Reid’s Read on Republican Power Brokers

Why the Senator from Searchlight prefers Adelson to the Koch brothers

Illustration by Jon Estradad

Illustration by Jon Estrada

In Searchlight, there’s a foundation for a house that burned down—a house made of old railroad ties, where a hard-drinking miner and his family lived, Franklin Roosevelt was a god and the entertainment for one of the miner’s sons was listening to baseball on the radio.

This helps explain Senator Harry Reid’s recent attacks on the Koch brothers, among others—and why he isn’t attacking Sheldon Adelson.

Reid recently has blistered the Kochs as “un-American,” among other things, for their big spending on behalf of candidates committed to anti-environmental, anti-regulatory policies that would make their already highly profitable companies and investments even wealthier.

As Reid attacked, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, in which the five Republican-appointed justices threw out limits on individual campaign contributions to candidates and parties. That makes it easier for the Kochs and others to wield their influence, further corrupting a process that too many citizens already find so distasteful that voter-participation levels are a disgrace.

But Reid hasn’t won five Senate terms without knowing something about politics. Some analysts have pointed out that the court’s decision also could make it easier for Democrats to argue that Republicans are the party of the incredibly wealthy who are determined to become even wealthier—and thus the political wisdom of his attacks.

Another event in Reid’s backyard enabled Democrats to make that argument. Potential GOP presidential candidates descended on Las Vegas to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition and tell Adelson what he wanted to hear: that Israel started out perfect and keeps improving. Since Adelson spent as much as $150 million trying to defeat Barack Obama in 2012, Republican hopefuls have reason to be on his good side.

Yet Reid had little to say about Adelson. Lest we forget, senators represent their states; as New York’s Chuck Schumer pointed out in response to his liberalism failing him on some aspects of financial reform, Wall Street is in his district. Rural Nevadans have called Reid “Sierra Harry” for his environmentalism, but the mining industry may have no more ardent defender on Capitol Hill—unless it’s someone from another mining state. Representing his state’s interests, sometimes too ardently, makes Reid like every other successful senator in the institution’s history.

But it goes deeper. Agree or disagree with Adelson, he is committed to what he believes and puts his money where his mouth is. He also seems to know the limits of his beliefs. He claims to have different views on social issues than most Republicans, but is vocal mainly about the Middle East and now online gaming, giving him fewer issues on the table than the Kochs have. Nor does he profit personally from his political success to the degree the Kochs do, with their investments in a variety of companies.

That’s one difference, but there’s another that clearly roils Reid’s innards. Adelson’s father was a cab driver and his mother ran a knitting store. Like or dislike Adelson’s tactics, he has worked hard for his money. By contrast, the Kochs have built on a fortune they inherited.

Politics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In 2012, Reid won attention and criticism for accusing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney of paying no income taxes—which, as Bloomberg News duly noted, was both possible and legal. But Reid’s poverty-stricken childhood and his admiration for FDR give us some clues to his political sympathies and antipathies: Roosevelt was a child of wealth who pursued policies designed to help the poor; Romney and the Kochs have staked out starkly different approaches to American life. So maybe Reid’s love for baseball provides another clue: He has no use for people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.



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