A political temblor swept across the faults and fissures of Nevada’s political landscape last week. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid announced the end of his half-century-long political career that began with his election as a hospital trustee in 1966 and encompassed service as a state legislator, lieutenant governor, gambling regulator, U.S. House member and U.S. Senator. He is the Democratic floor leader in the Senate.
Reid’s political career covered one-third of state history. There are Nevadans born in the state who have never known politics without him. He and Democratic floor leader Nancy Pelosi enjoy more power and visibility than any other Democrats in Congress.
Following his retirement announcement, news coverage focused mostly on the political impact. Less clear is the impact on state and national public policy.
Reid’s departure will carry powerful implications for some Nevada concerns. His announcement comes just as U.S. Rep. Crescent Hardy—a Republican from Nevada’s 4th district—is trying to revive efforts to dump nuclear waste in Nye County, a proposal Reid has all but asphyxiated.
Reid’s efforts against high-polluting coal-generated energy and for wilderness could similarly find themselves on a back burner in Nevada’s policy discussions. The day before Reid’s retirement announcement, the National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC) sent out a news release: “If squashing a coal plant in Ely wasn’t bad enough, Harry Reid now supports a carbon tax which would kill 21,000 Nevada jobs,” providing a suggestion of GOP policy if a Republican succeeds Reid.
Reid was instrumental in putting obstacles in the way of a 1990s Washoe County effort to grab water from the Honey Lake region of California, but also aided Clark County’s attempted water raid on eastern Nevada and western Utah.
He supported re-regulating airlines, though it was Nevada’s Sen. Howard Cannon who had (albeit reluctantly) been instrumental in deregulation in the 1980s.
Reid’s handling of strategy and tactics in the Senate won criticism from Republicans and praise from Democrats, but was not an unalloyed success. His 2009 unwillingness to do anything about the “silent filibuster” (a post-1975 procedure under which any single senator could impose a 60-vote supermajority on any bill) squandered one of the great majorities of U.S. history, putting individual senators like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln in position to water down programs like the economic stimulus and the Democratic health care program—which they did.
Reid’s announcement fuzzed his reasons for retiring. In his statement, he said, “But this [recent injury] has caused Landra and me to have a little down time. I have had time to ponder and to think. … And as a result of that I’m not going to run for re-election,” which prompted some news entities to report he was retiring for family reasons. But last year Reid told the RN&R, “I enjoy my family and … one of my pet peeves is, ’Oh, man, I wish I could have spent more time with my family.’ I don’t say that. I’ve spent plenty of time with my family.” One news report said he specifically tried to avoid the impression that he retired for reasons either of family or the recent eye injury that may yet leave him blind in his right eye.
Thirty-three minutes after Reid announced his retirement, the NSRC issued a graceless statement in keeping with the tone that politics has taken on over the course of Reid’s career: “On the verge of losing his own election and after losing the majority, Senator Harry Reid has decided to hang up his rusty spurs. Not only does Reid instantly become irrelevant and a lame duck, his retirement signals that there is no hope for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate.”
The poisonous atmosphere of politics today contrasts sharply with politics when Reid started out. His first statewide race, for lieutenant governor, was against Republican Bob Broadbent of Clark County. It was courteous and easygoing. Today, it is not uncommon to see headlines like “Harry Reid Filibusters on Behalf of Slaveholders” or language on Reid like “The man’s an established liar, a bizarre obsessive, a remorseless slanderer—but you already knew that.” This is particularly paradoxical because until he became Democratic leader, he was one of the Republicans’ favorite Democratic senators, given his relatively conservative voting record and civility as party whip.
Though Reid has a reputation for election near misses, it is built on only a single election. Since first being elected to the Senate, Reid has had only one close race. He first won the job in 1986 by comfortably defeating Democrat-turned-Republican James Santini (“Mr. Minerals”). Reid ran as a friend of the environment and a critic of the Nevada mining lobby.
Thereafter, in 1992 and 2004, Reid won by wide margins. His toughest fight came in 1998 when Republican House member John Ensign ran a vigorous campaign and came within 428 votes of beating Reid in a race in which more than 436,000 Nevadans voted. A 2010 race against third party member-turned-Republican Sharron Angle featured lots of sound and fury but ended in an easy 6-percentage-point win for Reid.
Speculative stories this year about his supposedly awaiting 2016 fate (Business Insider: “The most powerful Democrat in Congress could be unseated for the first time in nearly 3 decades”) bore a strong resemblance to the articles that appeared in 2009 (Washington Post: “Harry Reid is in Deep Trouble”) during the run-up to the race against Angle. But the Republican search for a 2016 candidate against Reid stalled, with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s reluctance to go to D.C. pronounced and other GOP candidates staring at the ceiling. It is likely that with Reid out of the way, at least some of the blushing violets will no doubt rediscover their inner strength. But Sandoval would not be the first leading Nevada politician who found the toxic attractions of Congress resistible.
Though Reid is trying to choose his own successor by endorsing former attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, a Reid anointment did not have the punch it once carried. U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006, said she was considering the race. Environmental leader Dan Patterson, a former Arizona state legislator who now lives in Boulder City, said he was considering running. “Harry Reid has earned the right to recommend, but people are skeptical of insider ’kingmaker’ politics,” he said.
Republicans gloated that they would be better able to pick up the Nevada Senate seat without Reid as a candidate. But it may also mean that they face a Democrat without Reid’s baggage. Both parties have considerable benches.
Reid was having more success enforcing his choice of a successor as floor leader of the Senate Democratic caucus. His endorsement of Sen. Charles Schumer of New York appears to have locked up the job, though Democratic activists went to the web to express their support for Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
During Reid’s incumbency, as political financing laws changed, Nevada’s weak Democratic and Republican party organizations were revitalized, less because of Reid or other leaders but because they became conduits for soft money, with the Nevada Democratic Party becoming an essential part of what is labeled as the “Reid machine.” Parties that once had trouble paying phone bills and otherwise have little influence nevertheless now spend millions in state races.