LAS VEGAS — While the focus of the third and final debate in Las Vegas will undoubtedly be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the most satisfied person won't be on the debate stage. Instead, he'll be watching on the sidelines and out of the spotlight, perhaps reminiscing about what has come of the once sleepy, backward state of Nevada.
As Democratic Senator Harry Reid is set to retire his political career at the end of the year, the presidential debate in Las Vegas is the perfect culmination of a career focused on making Nevada relevant in national politics — and really making the rest of the country care about a state that most don't know how to pronounce.
When Reid entered Congress nearly 34 years ago, Nevada had a population of less than one million people and was still considered a cowboy state with little to offer but the legality of immorality — prostitution and gambling.
But Reid, a quiet but dogged worker and dealmaker, who grew up a scrappy boxer in a shack in the dirt road town of Searchlight, understood that an irrelevant state would get no respect until people were forced to pay attention to it.
He rose through the ranks in the Senate and sat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, giving Nevada an infusion of cash to enhance its community colleges and universities, expand its airports and expressways, and protect its coveted gaming industry and the state from a nuclear waste storage site called Yucca Mountain. Believing that they have brought prosperity to the state, Reid has been a staunch defender of Congressional earmarks.
He became the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate and then the highest ranking in 2004, when then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle lost his reelection bid.
That's when Reid's quest to put Nevada on the national political map accelerated.
With its cheap land, an influx of Californians came looking for a lower cost of living, and decent paying blue-collar job brought in workers from around the country, making Las Vegas among the fastest growing cities in the country nearly every year since the mid 1980s. A population explosion highlighted by the massive expansion of Hispanics, Reid correctly predicted that the traditionally Republican state would soon become a battleground.
He spent years building the state's Democratic Party. Reid "turned the state party into a legalized money laundering machine," veteran Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston noted. In other words, with his tremendous ability to fundraise, Reid also built political clout.
Using his perch as Senate Majority Leader, he convinced the Democratic National Committee to move Nevada's primary date to one of the first four, arguing that Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina didn't represent the West and the growing Latino population.
"We have thus been important in presidential politics ever since. Candidates have paid attention ever since," Ralston said.
And in 2008, he took full advantage of the epic and fierce primary battle between then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He capitalized on Democratic enthusiasm and made a massive push for voter registrations, even implementing a caucus instead of a primary election, which increased Democratic voter registration. In 2008 Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by 100,000, more than at any time previously.
For his fight, however, Reid has suffered politically. He has never been hugely popular in this politically moderate state. Each of his elections was close, and Reid's approval hit a low in 2010 when the tea party wave pushed Democrats out of office. But Reid was lucky. He was running against a political neophyte, Sharron Angle, and the machine he had worked so hard to build was there to see him through.
Nevada, Las Vegas especially, has spent the past eight years experiencing and recovering from the Great Recession, but this cowboy state is now part cowboy (rural), part multicultural (urban), part worker (suburban) and part glamour (destination). It's also a battleground.
Nevada's six electoral votes are currently leaning Clinton, but this bellwether that often sides with the winner is not what Reid had in mind. He envisioned a Nevada as blue as the state flag.
It's only fitting that in Reid's final months in office, the biggest political stage is in his backyard, giving him the send off only a fiercely determined political operative could be proud of.