Reid's huge war chest may deter foes


If money talks, here's what U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's campaign finances are saying: Watch out.

The Senate majority leader has raised almost $11 million for his re-election, his campaign announced Tuesday, and he says he will have raked in $25 million by the time it's all over in November 2010.

If he were to spend it all, it would certainly be the most money ever spent on a state election. But spending it isn't the point, analysts say. The point is to intimidate.

"Basically, he's trying to deter anybody from running against him by letting Republicans know the kind of money they're going to have to throw in" to compete, said David Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Who wants to challenge someone who has $25 million? So far, it seems to be working."

Reid, 69, does not yet have a major Republican opponent as he seeks a fifth Senate term. But the aggressive fundraising demonstrates he is taking nothing for granted and using his power as Washington's most powerful lawmaker to assemble a broad base of financial support.

With lackluster approval ratings from voters in his home state, according to polls, Reid knows his re-election is far from assured, Damore said.

"His numbers are a problem. They're not good," Damore said. "It's not a done deal at all. But you can't beat somebody with nobody."

Reid, he noted, "has never been hugely popular -- his style and personality don't lend themselves to that. But he's a good politician: He knows how to create the context to get elected."

According to Reid's campaign, the disclosure due to be filed with the Federal Election Commission today will show that the Nevada Democrat raised $3.25 million in the second quarter of 2009, covering April, May and June.

Reid will report having $7.33 million in cash on hand in his campaign account. The fundraising totals include more than $400,000 from a star-studded fundraiser headlined by President Barack Obama in May at Caesars Palace, according to the campaign.

The fundraiser brought in a total of nearly $2 million that went into a separate campaign account, the Reid Victory Fund, shared by the Reid campaign and the Nevada Democratic Party, which faces higher contribution limits under federal law.

The $11 million Reid has raised so far amounts to about $4 for every Nevadan and more than $8 for every registered voter in the state. If he gets to $25 million, that would be $9 per state resident and $19 per voter.

In 2004, the last time he was on the ballot, Reid raised and spent about $7 million. His opponent, little-known social conservative activist Richard Ziser, spent $645,000. Reid won with 61 percent of the vote statewide.

But the political dynamic for Reid was different then. It was in the 2004 election that then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., lost his seat.

Reid was next in line and became the Democratic leader upon Daschle's exit. When Democrats took the Senate in the 2006 elections, he became majority leader.

In that capacity, he has been one of his party's chief spokesmen nationally, which observers say has given him a partisan image in a state that doesn't look kindly on partisanship. Being constantly mentioned in the same breath as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., doesn't necessarily fit with Reid's 2004 campaign slogan, "Independent Like Nevada."

That's the reason usually cited for Reid's poor poll numbers. A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll conducted last month found that 34 percent of Nevada voters had a favorable opinion of Reid, while 46 percent viewed him unfavorably.

Republicans hope those numbers mean they can engineer a repeat of Daschle's 2004 defeat.

"Unfortunately for Harry Reid, money doesn't buy elections," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP's campaign arm in Washington. "It's unfortunate that the Nevada economy and housing market isn't enjoying the same success as Harry Reid's campaign war chest."

Republicans so far have been frustrated by their inability to come up with a top-tier opponent to Reid. Their first choice, Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is said to be biding his time, waiting to see what shakes out with the sex scandal involving the state's junior senator, Republican John Ensign.

A spokesman for Heller didn't respond to a query Tuesday seeking his current thoughts on the Senate race.

That leaves a passel of second-choice options. Those who have thrown their names in the ring include former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who has lost Republican primaries in the past two elections; Wall Street banker John Chachas, who would move from New York City to his hometown of Ely to run; Reno attorney Chuck Kozak, who moved to the state in 2005; and state Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, who formerly headed a lobbying group for the state's mining industry.

As of Tuesday, none had filed a financial report with the FEC. Filing is required for candidates who raise more than $5,000.

But Walsh said Republicans expect to have a formidable opponent for Reid and expect to see money flow in from partisans across America as the race becomes a national referendum on the Democratic agenda and Democrats' control of Congress.

"It's still early in the election cycle," Walsh said. "We expect to make this a competitive race."

When and if a competitive race gets under way, Reid's campaign can try to spend its massive war chest, but there are only so many consultants you can hire, television ads you can air, mailers you can send and organizers you can deploy into the field, Las Vegas Republican political consultant Ryan Erwin said.

"You can probably only spend $9 (million) or $10 million at peak efficiency," Erwin said. "After that, it becomes funny money, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in."

Reid's campaign manager, Brandon Hall, said the campaign's money would "allow us to communicate with voters about what Senator Reid's leadership position has meant for Nevada."

On paper, he said, the fundraising totals show that the campaign has momentum and lots of supporters. But in practice, every dollar is another opportunity to get the message out to Nevadans about Reid's work for the state on issues like energy and job creation, he said.

"We're running as if we're going to have the hardest race there is," he said. "If it turns out we don't, that's great, but we are prepared to run that race."

In an interview a couple of weeks ago, Reid said he thought his campaign was going fine. Asked what campaign-related activities he was doing, the senator smiled.

"Everything I do in the last five years has been campaign-related," he said. "That's what my life is about."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

 

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