U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has been grabbing headlines lately by going on the Senate floor to attack the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, who are generous donors to Republican candidates and causes.
“The truth is, the Koch brothers are willing to do anything — even exploit Americans suffering from cancer — to advance their campaign of distortion,” Reid said Thursday, accusing the Koch brothers of “rigging the political process for their own benefit.”
But it’s Reid’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers that are more interesting this election cycle as he and his formidable campaign team help two Democratic candidates in Nevada who could block two of his potential Senate foes in 2016.
reid’s work in state elections
The Senate majority leader in 2016 will be up for re-election to a sixth, six-year term. He’ll be 76 during the campaign, turning 77 on Dec. 2, 2016.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is expected to easily win re-election this year, is considered a possible challenger, though he has repeatedly said he plans to serve out his current four-year term.
Reid failed to recruit a strong Democratic candidate to take on Sandoval so he’s doing the next best thing — getting involved in the race for lieutenant governor. The winner of that office next fall would replace Sandoval if he doesn’t complete his term, and the governor might skip a Senate bid rather than leave the state in Democratic hands.
Reid is backing Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, for lieutenant governor, betting that her hardscrabble life story (from gang member to lawmaker) and Hispanic heritage will earn votes in a state that is about 27 percent Latino. Reid’s 2010 campaign manager, Brandon Hall, is advising her campaign.
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., might also challenge Reid in 2016. Heck is favored to win a third two-year House term in November, though he’s defending Southern Nevada’s swing 3rd Congressional District, which has changed parties twice since its creation after the 2000 U.S. Census.
Against Heck, Reid is backing Democrat Erin Bilbray, a political consultant. Reid is close to the Bilbray family and served with her father, former U.S. Rep. James Bilbray, D-Nev.
Bilbray also is using Reid’s pollster, Mark Mellman, who is seen as one of the state’s most accurate pollsters as he predicted Reid would win in 2010 when other surveys showed he would likely lose to Republican Sharron Angle.
Reid has helped both Flores and Bilbray raise money, including holding separate breakfast fundraisers for them at Charlie Palmer’s steakhouse in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. The asking price was as much as $5,000 per diner.
“Without a high-profile U.S. Senate or gubernatorial race, he needs to find something to do with his resources so why not play in those races?” said David Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Also, in the case of Bilbray, my sense is that there are personal and family ties, along with a general dislike for Heck, that is motivating his support.”
luring latino turnout
Having Flores on the Democratic ticket also could raise Latino voter turnout, Damore said. Reid has credited Hispanic voters for his victory in 2010, when Latinos accounted for about 17 percent to 18 percent of the electorate.
“There are some concerns, at least nationally, that Latino voters who came out in 2012 will be less engaged in 2014,” Damore said. “So having a young Latina Democrat running statewide may help with turnout up and down the ticket and cut into Sandoval’s ability to increase his share of the Latino vote even without a viable Democrat gubernatorial candidate.”
On the Republican side in the lieutenant governor’s race, state Sen. Mark Hutchison of Las Vegas has been endorsed by Sandoval and other GOP leaders, including U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Heck. But Sue Lowden, a former Nevada Republican Party chairwoman who lost the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2010, is challenging Hutchison.
In 2010, Reid’s campaign targeted Lowden for defeat during the GOP primary because she was considered the strongest candidate he might face. The ploy worked: Tea party favorite Angle won the primary, then lost the general election.
This year, the Nevada Democratic Party appears to be targeting Hutchison more than Lowden, believing he’s the stronger candidate in the June 10 primary and Flores would be more likely to beat Lowden in the Nov. 4 general election.
Robert Uithoven, a Republican consultant who ran Lowden’s 2010 campaign, said Reid gets heavily involved in each election for both his own political survival and to maintain a strong Democratic Party machine.
Early in his career, Reid lost a couple of minor political races and nearly lost his Senate seat in 1998.
“I think Harry Reid learned in 1998 that he has to be involved in every campaign cycle, not just those when he is on the ballot,” Uithoven said. “That is how and why he has done such an effective job leading his party and building it into the machine it is today.”
“And, I don’t think there is any doubt that the two Republicans he fears most as potential 2016 opponents are Joe Heck and Brian Sandoval,” Uithoven added. “For obvious reasons, his fingerprints are all over the lieutenant governor’s GOP primary, as well.”
Reid thought he had sidelined Sandoval in 2005, when he helped him win an appointment to the federal bench. But Sandoval quit to run for governor in 2010, beating Reid’s son, then-Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid.
If Sandoval doesn’t run for the U.S. Senate, he might seek another judgeship or a Cabinet post if a Republican wins the presidency in 2016. Nevada’s first Hispanic governor also has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate.
PLAYING THE GAME
Jennifer Duffy, a longtime Senate watcher with The Cook Political Report, said that when it comes to politics, “Reid does indeed play long ball.” But the political climate for the midterm elections appears to favor Republicans at this point. Duffy pointed to last Tuesday’s special congressional election in Florida where Republican David Jolly beat Democrat Alex Sink.
“Reid is happy with Sandoval comfortably ensconced in the governor’s office,” Duffy said. “At the same time, if Sandoval really has Senate aspirations, having a Democratic lieutenant governor won’t dissuade him from running. Beating Heck would definitely limit Heck’s options in 2016, but beating him won’t be easy given the overall political climate” favoring Republicans this year.
As for Reid taking on the Koch brothers, the tactic may be a way to divert attention from difficulties Americans are having with President Barack Obama’s health insurance law, Duffy said. The Koch brothers are putting tens of millions of dollars behind Senate candidates with the aim of giving Republicans control of the upper house. The brothers also are among the most generous donors to Americans for Prosperity, which is running ads to support Heck.
Reid’s “addicted to Koch” campaign against Republicans “is an effort to turn the page,” Duffy said. “They need something else to talk about.”
“It is unclear whether it will work,” Duffy added. “Republicans tried to do this to George Soros and failed.”
The bottom line for Reid, Duffy said, is “it is certainly worth playing the long game, especially given how vulnerable I think he will be” in 2016. “But, just because you play, doesn’t mean it pays off. We will only have that answer in November.”
Contact reporter Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.