The political peril has deepened for Sen. Harry Reid and the entire Democratic ticket in Nevada after the stunning special election victory of a Republican who won the Massachusetts seat of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late Democratic icon.
The head of the Nevada Republican Party, in a chest-thumping conference call with reporters, said Wednesday the GOP is launching a voter registration and fundraising drive to take advantage of the momentum fueled by voter anger against the party in power. Chris Comfort vowed to retire Reid and Congresswoman Dina Titus and lead a "Republican renaissance" by erasing an 84,000-voter Democratic edge over the GOP and bringing money into Nevada from out of state.
"We have many candidates who are perfectly capable of taking the job from Harry Reid," Comfort said. "Harry's going down with the sinking ship."
The already crowded GOP field of potential Reid opponents might get more crowded.
Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said Wednesday that former GOP presidential candidate John McCain and others have urged him to run for Reid's seat, although well before Brown's victory. The calls started after Dec. 7 when a judge tossed from court a criminal case alleging he misused funds in a college savings program he oversaw, he said.
"They are serious conversations," said Krolicki, who blamed Reid for what he described as a partisan prosecution by the Democratic attorney general, Catherine Cortez Masto. "I'm absolutely considering it."
Krolicki said he will make a decision "in the next few weeks."
Among the top factors is whether advisers can paint a clear path to victory in the primary and general elections and whether donors will commit the resources needed to execute the strategy.
Countering the GOP enthusiasm, the Nevada Democratic Party and the Reid camp insisted that their election playbooks would not change and that they had long prepared for a tough 2010 campaign.
"It's never as good as anyone thinks it is, and it's never as bad as anyone thinks it is," Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall said.
"Ten months is a lifetime in politics," Hall said. The senator will hit the campaign trail hard this spring to seek a fifth term, Hall said.
Reid will focus on projects that have saved jobs in Nevada -- such as CityCenter on the Strip -- and that will create jobs, including clean energy development, Hall said. Fallout from Republican Scott Brown's defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley was immediately felt in Nevada and in the debate over the fate of Obama's health care legislation, the issue that has hurt Senate Majority Leader Reid and the Democrats the most.
Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, said Reid as the highest-ranking Democrat is a potential drag on every race, federal and statewide, which means he could hurt the chances of his son, Rory Reid, who is running for governor.
"He could take down every Democrat running statewide," Coker said. "That's the one thing that yesterday told me. This thing may go a lot deeper than just Harry Reid."
Titus and Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, in separate interviews in Washington, both said they are ready to scale back the health care overhaul and pass a simpler, consumer-friendly bill and then move on to legislation that will create jobs and help the economy.
Titus said the lesson from Massachusetts is that voters "are mad because they are thinking we don't 'get it' in Washington."
"Get what they need, get what's important, get our priorities straight. They need a job," Titus said. "I think the people who voted for us last time, the base and the nonpartisans, they wanted change, and they haven't seen it."
She said Democrats who dominated in 2006 and 2008 elections need to "step back and see what we are doing wrong and try to shift to be more responsive as an institution and as a party.''
Titus is in a difficult re-election race for a formerly GOP district that could go either way in November, according to the Cook Political Report and the latest poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It shows her even with potential GOP opponent Joe Heck and a few points ahead of Rob Lauer, another Republican primary contender.
"Titus is absolutely vulnerable," said David Wasserman of Cook. "She hasn't departed from the Democratic agenda on any major issues, and this is not safe Democratic territory."
Berkley, on the other hand, is expected to win re-election, Wasserman said.
Reid, 70, is the most vulnerable incumbent in the Senate and is in a "toss-up" race, according to the Cook report.
"I know he's had this strategy of going after the (Democratic) base, but I think Virginia, New Jersey and now Massachusetts shows that's not going to be enough," Jennifer Duffy of Cook said.
Republicans won the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey last year in upsets.
Reid and other Democrats need to appeal to Nevada's nonpartisan voters, about 15 percent of the electorate. Republicans, too, plan to woo them in the registration drive, said Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, which is targeting the Reid race.
As for fundraising, Wilcox said the party isn't putting out a figure on how much it is willing to spend in Nevada, but he noted Reid has said he will raise $25 million to defend his seat.
"We're going to make sure Nevada has the necessary funds to be competitive," Wilcox said.
The Republican primary could turn into a slugfest, which might help Reid. The two front-runners, former UNLV basketball star and lawyer Danny Tarkanian and former state senator and businesswoman Sue Lowden, have been increasingly trading barbs heading toward the filing deadline of March 12.
Democrat Richard Bryan, a former Nevada governor, U.S. senator and a longtime Reid friend, said in an interview that Massachusetts is a "wake-up call" Democrats must heed.
"It's pretty clear that health care doesn't have the traction that Democrats felt it had earlier in the year," Bryan said. "The economy dominates the political landscape. People are worried. They're scared. And they're angry. Jobs -- that's the issue that's drowning out all the other political clutter."
Bryan said it's too early to make doomsday predictions about Reid or the Democrats in November, and he believes in the end the senator from Searchlight will return to Washington.
"This Republican primary may get very, very nasty," Bryan said. "It's not going to be easy for him," he added of Reid. "There are a lot of factors that will make it difficult, but I think he pulls it out in the end."
Bryan, 72, left the Senate in 2000, voluntarily retiring.
He said only two other Nevada senators did the same: Democrat Alan Bible in 1974 and Republican Paul Laxalt, who retired in 1987 to run briefly for president in 1988.
Other Nevada senators left Washington "in pine boxes or in the ashes of defeat," Bryan said.
Asked whether Reid should retire rather than risk the ashes, Bryan said no because as the most powerful senator in Washington, he plays a major role in committee appointments and in working for Nevada despite criticism from GOP opponents that he hasn't done enough for the state.
"I think it would be extremely damaging to Nevada because of his seniority and his leadership," Bryan said. "He has done and continues to do extraordinary things for Nevada."
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault and Review-Journal writer Benjamin Spillman contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.