WASHINGTON — Is Harry Reid too big to fail? That is shaping up as the key point of contention in the Senate majority leader’s 2010 re-election contest back home in Nevada.
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Reid and his supporters contend that the state cannot risk losing the legislative and political clout that come with the four-term incumbent’s powerful leadership position. Opponents argue back that Reid’s rise to the top of the Senate Democratic ranks has actually produced few tangible benefits for his home-state constituents.
Asked why he is backing Reid, influential Nevada Republican Sig Rogich points to the four term senator’s influence. “I think at this particular time it would be foolish for Nevadans to think of giving up the majority leadership in our state,” said Rogich, the Las Vegas media baron, longtime friend of Reid’s and founder of the organization Republicans for Reid.
He added, “It’s never been more vital to us,” citing the state’s battered economy.
Robert Uithoven, a political consultant and former aide to incumbent Nevada Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons , is not convinced. “That’s always been Reid’s pitch,” he said. “Nevada voters, you empower me, I’ll empower you. He has gained this power, but he’s been really the only one to benefit from this deal.”
Reid doesn’t have a challenger at the moment, after 2nd District Rep. Dean Heller and former 3rd District Rep. Jon Porter of begged off the race this summer. Many local Republican strategist think State Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden is now their best prospective candidate.
But Republicans think that regardless of who their nominee is, Reid is vulnerable to what has come to be known as political jujitsu, a tactic of turning an opponent’s presumed strengths into weaknesses. Uithoven predicted that the eventual nominee is “going to go right after his central argument, and his central argument is, ‘I’m too big too fail.’”
Uithoven pointed to recent poll numbers that he said show voters aren’t buying Reid’s pitch, either. He highlighted independents, a crucial voting bloc in Nevada, who disapproved of Reid’s job performance by 59 percent to 38 percent in a recent survey published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Overall, Reid’s job approval score stood at 43 percent.
But Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, cautioned that Reid has never been rated particularly highly in polls. Back in July 2003 Reid’s favorability rating was at 49 percent. But Republican strategists were unable to recruit a strong challenger, and Reid coasted to victory in 2004 with 61 percent of the vote and a 26 percentage-point winning margin.
“Harry Reid is not a beloved politician,” said Herzik, but “he’s respected and sometimes feared.” Herzik continued, “It’s because he generally focuses on getting the deal done, on addressing an issue. That’s been his strength.”
The GOP hopes to undermine that narrative this time around, but Reid won’t make it easy.
Much has been made of the comparison between Reid’s upcoming re-election battle and the 2004 campaign in South Dakota, when Republican John Thune upset Democrat Tom Daschle, then the Senate minority leader.
Thune targeted Daschle’s position as head of the Senate Democratic minority, saying he had become the chief obstructionist to President George W. Bush ’s agenda and questioning whether Daschle was carrying water for national Democratic interests rather than upholding the values of his conservative-leaning state. Thune honed his attacks by focusing largely on hot-button social issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and gun owners’ rights.
In the Nevada race, the debate is going to be predominantly about the economy. As majority leader and the Senate point person for the Obama administration, Reid is positioned to take both a large share of credit — or a large share of blame — depending on how the state’s recession-plagued economy evolves over the next 14 months.
Republicans argue that Nevada’s struggles, which included the nation’s highest foreclosure rate and fifth-highest unemployment rate in June, indicate that Reid hasn’t delivered.
“When it comes to unemployment and the negative impact of the economy on Nevada, it hasn’t gotten better as a result of his leadership,” said Bernie Zadrowski, a member of the Nevada GOP’s executive board.
Reid’s spokesman, Jon Summers, countered, “It took eight years of failed policies to get into this mess, and it’s going to take some time to get out of this mess,” he said, referring to the country’s economic tailspin under President George W. Bush ’s two terms.
He pointed to the $1.5 billion Reid secured for the state in the federal stimulus package (PL 111-5) and $100 million from the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill (PL 111-8).
Reid also helped negotiate the “highest percentage increase of Medicaid funding in the nation,” Summers stated.
Still, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported back in February that among all states plus the District of Columbia, Nevada ranked 50th out of 51 in the amount of per capita stimulus funds channeled directly to the states, ahead of only Utah.
Summers said that result was because much of the state funding was determined via matching-fund formulas, and Nevada’s notoriously stingy budget meant it was eligible for less than it would be if the state were already spending more on social services such as education.
That also explains, he said, why Nevada finishes at the bottom in terms of non-stimulus related per capita federal spending.
The stimulus money isn’t the only way Reid has been working to boost Nevada’s economy. In recent months he has taken a two-pronged approach to the problem: first, advocating for new federal travel policies to boost the state’s sagging tourism industry, its dominant source of revenue; and second, to diversify the economy via the promotion of a renewable energy sector.
Nevada’s abundance of renewable resources — solar, wind and geothermal — have Reid talking up the state’s green energy potential, both to his constituents and in Washington. His most recent move was hosting a National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, attended by notables such as former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis .
“They all agreed that they were gathering in Las Vegas ... because of Harry Reid ,” said Summers. “That wouldn’t happen if he wasn’t the majority leader.”
On the legislative front, Reid says Democrats, under his leadership, provided $67 billion for clean energy investment in the stimulus measure, and are fighting for the “cap-and-trade” bill aimed at curbing emissions from traditional industrial facilities that are believed to contribute to global warming. Reid is also pushing a bill (S 539) that would improve transmission capacity of renewable energy.
Reid, however, is decidedly against one type of renewable energy: nuclear. That is because a fierce debate has been going on for more than two decades about a federal law — almost universally loathed in the state — targeting Nevada’s isolated Yucca Mountain as the repository for high-level radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear power facilities.
Earlier this month, Reid heralded an agreement with the White House to cut off funding in the fiscal 2011 budget for the application to license a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, located 80 miles from Las Vegas.
Rogich, Reid’s Republican ally, credits his rise to influence for turning the tide in favor of Nevada after years of frustrated efforts by state officials and lawmakers to quash the Yucca Mountain project. “Of all places in the world, the city of Las Vegas, which provides the life blood of Nevada via tourism, could ill afford the problems of being a nuclear waste dump,” said Rogich. “I think we owe the fact that it’s not here to Sen. Reid.”
But GOP officials say Reid can’t take credit, yet. In a statement released July 31, Republican Gov. Gibbons said Reid “has alleged that Yucca Mountain is ‘dead’ or called Yucca Mountain ‘dead’ during July, May, and March 2009, January, February, June, July and September 2008, May and November 2007, as well as April and August 2006.”
Gibbons suggested Reid “use his influence in Congress to repeal the Nuclear Waste Policy Act,” the law that authorized the waste dump in Yucca in the first place.
Nevadans can expect many more of these types of exchanges in the next 14 months.
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