Harry Reid says Democratic race is 'far from being over'

The former Nevada senator and political kingmaker tells NBC News that none of the candidates should be counted out of the race.
Image: Harry Reid
Former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada speaks before the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday. John Locher / AP

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell

LAS VEGAS — Former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said Wednesday that the Democratic presidential race is still in the early stages and that none of the candidates should be counted out despite Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ early success and lead in national polls.

In an interview with NBC News prior to the Democratic debate, Reid, who will not endorse a candidate before Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, said Sanders is leading because he has the most robust organization and has been running for president longer than anyone else.

“He didn't start his organization a few months ago. It's been going on for years,” Reid said. “So take Nevada as an example: He has people out here 12 months out of the year. It's that way around a lot of the country. He's just ahead of everybody in his organization.”

But, he added, “the race is far from being over.”

“A lot can change and will change.”

During a wide-ranging interview in his office at the Bellagio on Wednesday afternoon, Reid, who retired from the Senate in 2017 after five terms, including 10 years as the Democratic minority and majority leader, showed why he remains a political kingmaker in the state.

Every candidate has met with Reid to seek his advice, even the latest entrant, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who visited Reid in his home. He didn’t tell Reid he was going to launch a presidential bid, but Reid said he could tell that Bloomberg was interested in something.

Reid also downplayed an article in The Atlantic on Wednesday that reported he had two meetings with Sanders in 2011 to talk him out of launching a primary bid against President Barack Obama.

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“I talked to Bernie and I talked to every senator to make sure that they were totally supportive of Obama. And they were,” Reid said. “He would've been stupid to do that, and he's not stupid.”

Reid didn’t say a negative word about any of the Democrats still in the race, but he said he didn’t agree with some policy platforms that Sanders has endorsed, including "Medicare for All."

“First of all, I don't like it,” he said of Sanders’ central campaign platform. “It's not realistic. I don't think it would pass.”

Reid said that Democrats should “re-establish Obamacare” and add a public option, which he says, would make people “very happy with their insurance.”

Reid’s opposition to Medicare for All is shared in some influential corners of the state's electorate. The powerful Culinary Workers Union in Nevada has been vocal about their opposition to Medicare for All, potentially putting a dent in Sanders’ support in the state, although the union has not formally endorsed a candidate in the race.

Warren has also supported a Medicare for All plan, but she has softened her stance by coming out with a transition plan that would more gradually move the country to a government-run system.

And Reid warned Democrats not to move too far to the left on immigration, saying they should be “very careful” about decriminalizing crossing the border. “We’re a country of laws,” he said.

When asked why Warren has struggled in the first two states and whether the country was ready to elect a woman as president, Reid noted that Nevada was the first state to have a majority female legislature and that both U.S. senators were women, as are a majority of judges on the state Supreme Court.

“All I know is Nevada has proven the strength of women," he said. "People were saying we need to empower women. Women empowered us in Nevada.”

And, he added, Warren's candidacy shouldn’t be ignored. “Don't count Elizabeth out of the race.”

Despite being criticized heavily by Democratic opponents for pledging to spend a billion or more dollars in the race, Bloomberg is still “within the confines of the law," Reid said.

“I think that he was a good mayor, and I'm not going to be criticizing him because he's got a lot of money,” Reid said.

Reid also said that the early nominating contests of Iowa, which he called a “debacle,” and New Hampshire aren’t representative of the country and shouldn’t be given the credence it is given, and that is part of the reason former Vice President Joe Biden didn’t do well.

After the first two contests, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg holds a narrow lead in delegates while Sanders has opened up a double-digit lead in some recent polls.

Reid said those states shouldn't be the first in the nominating calendar because they lack diversity.

“I think Iowa and New Hampshire have been the first to vote, but they damn sure shouldn't be. They have done so much damage,” Reid said. “There's no diversity. It's not right that 48 states should have to follow those two states which are not representative of the country.”

Reid said what happens in Nevada will be more representative of the will of Democrats in the country. Nevada is the first majority minority state to vote, with Latinos at 30 percent of the population, and African Americans and Asian Americans at 10 percent each.

Reid said he would have more to say about the Democratic primary process on Sunday, the day after Nevada wraps up its caucuses.

Regardless of the results here Saturday, Reid insists that any candidate in the Democratic race will be “better than that guy” in the White House.

Reid, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, has a letter from President Donald Trump hanging on his office wall congratulating him on his 2010 re-election to the Senate in a high-profile race against Tea Party upstart Sharon Angle.

The one-line letter says, “You are amazing. Congratulations.”

When asked why he has chosen to display a letter from a president he strongly opposes, Reid quipped, “because it’s fun.”

Julie Tsirkin contributed.