Democratic leader Harry Reid says he wishes he could stay in the U.S. Senate forever.
So the canny 76-year-old is doing the next best thing as he heads into retirement after more than three decades: working the inside game as only he can, to ensure he leaves Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate, the White House and his home state of Nevada next year.
Reid hand-picked the Democratic candidate to replace him, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. She is trying to capitalize on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s unpopularity with Hispanics by playing up the fact that she would be the first Latina elected to the Senate. If she wins in Nevada, Democrats will be well on their way to taking back Senate control after two years in the minority.
Reid also interceded in Nevada’s caucuses in February, helping to get union workers to Democratic presidential caucus sites, which tipped the balance in favor of front-runner Hillary Clinton at a moment when Bernie Sanders’ support was surging.
Now Reid is moving all the levers at his disposal to ease the Vermont senator out of the race, subtly and not-so subtly, even as he promotes the idea of liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as Clinton’s running mate, something that could be a consolation prize for Sanders’ supporters.
Also, Reid is intricately involved with races in Nevada, working to retake control of the Legislature for the Democrats and restore a Democratic majority in the congressional delegation. Whether his vaunted political machine retains its potency may become partially clear on Tuesday, when Nevada holds its congressional primaries and a Reid-backed Democrat faces two strong opponents in the 4th Congressional District race.
The moves are vintage Reid, who has long meddled in politics in his small state, cementing his status as an unparalleled political animal by winning his own re-election race in 2010 against all odds. He is a most unusual politician, with stooped shoulders, frequent gaffes, and a nearly inaudible speaking style. But he will leave a legacy unmatched in Nevada and as an important partner to President Barack Obama.
“He’s built a machine like nobody has seen before and he will leave that to future Democrats,” said U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, one of few Democrats who’s defied Reid and lived to flourish politically. As for Reid’s distinctively uncharismatic style, Titus suggested even that could be a political calculation.
“He speaks softly? People have to lean in and listen. If you make gaffes you can get away with making points that other people might be afraid to make,” the Nevada congresswoman said. “I’m not sure that those are not intentional.”
Some of Reid’s more notorious comments include calling then-President George W. Bush a “loser” and remarking that tourists to the Capitol smell bad in summer. His accomplishments include shepherding Obama’s health care bill through the Senate with no votes to spare, getting Obama to protect more than 700,000 acres of remote Nevada lands in the Basin and Range National Monument, and moving up Nevada’s caucuses in 2008 to make it an early voting state. That resulted in many new Democratic registrations that have made the state much friendlier territory for the party.
Reid, a gold miner’s son from tiny Searchlight, Nevada, doesn’t mention any of those things when asked how he wants to be remembered.
“I want to be remembered as someone who worked hard, was honest and did my best to represent the people of Nevada and the country,” he said softly in a recent interview in the North Las Vegas campaign headquarters of state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, a protege whom Reid is helping in a contested Democratic congressional primary.
Reid’s legacy is likely to be more complex than that.
He’s hated by many Republicans for running the Senate with an iron fist when Democrats were in control, shutting off votes on legislation in what turned out to be a failed, and arguably misguided, effort to protect vulnerable Democrats headed into the 2014 election. That election cycle turned out to be a disaster for Democrats, costing them control of the Senate and Reid his perch as majority leader, and causing some to question whether his machine still could deliver.
“In 2014 in this state we swept the six constitutional offices, we flipped the state Senate back to a Republican majority and we took back the state Assembly for the first time since 1992,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, the Republican running for Reid’s seat. “I think that speaks for itself.”
Democrats say that as he looks to retirement, Reid is more determined than ever to reverse those losses.
“Sen. Reid would love nothing more than to leave the U.S. Senate with a Democratic majority and to right the ship at home in Nevada,” said Rebecca Lambe, Reid’s top political adviser in Nevada.
As the date for leaving the Senate nears, Reid has grown more outspoken about his regrets about retiring. He would have run again, had he not been sidelined by an eye injury early last year when an exercise band snapped and smashed him in the face, leaving him blind in one eye.
“I’m going to find something to do to keep me busy,” said Reid, though it won’t be spending more time with his family. He and his wife, Landra, have 19 grandchildren.
“I’ve spent enough time with my family,” Reid said. “I always kind of believe in quality, not quantity, so I’m fine.”