Harry Reid’s machine, it turns out, has outlasted the political career of Nevada’s senior senator.
A lasting part of Reid’s legacy as he exits the U.S. Senate will be the voter registration and turnout operation he built in Nevada that has helped elect Democratic candidates.
Thanks to Reid, Nevada Democrats fared better than Democrats nationwide did on Election Day. The state’s voters gave Hillary Clinton Nevada’s six electoral votes after a cycle that saw frequent visits in Nevada from Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump. Reid’s machine also helped down-ballot Democratic candidates in Nevada: Catherine Cortez Masto will succeed Reid. Two Democratic candidates, Ruben Kihuen and Jacky Rosen, were elected to Congress, flipping two Republican seats back to the Democratic column.
Democratic officials in Nevada credit Reid for turning the Nevada State Democratic Party into a formidable, organized operation.
“I think we have been able to establish a pretty strong operation in Nevada,” Reid said in an interview with the Review-Journal. “Of course I’m going to be gone so someone has to pick up that cudgel and do it themselves because I can’t do it anymore, don’t want to do it.”
Reid continued: “But I have laid out the blueprints for doing this — it’s not that hard. It doesn’t take someone with a perfect score on an SAT to do it. All you need is someone to work hard and not be cheap.”
While Reid’s role in the state party will fade, Democratic officials expect him to continue to be around to lend advice.
“I think we’ve proven to everyone how well the machine works,” said Nevada State Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange, who also was Reid’s deputy campaign manager in 1998.
THE MACHINE’S ROOTS
But it didn’t happen overnight. Reid came close to losing his Senate seat in 1998, winning by 428 votes in a race against Republican John Ensign that required a recount.
Efforts to build the party have their roots stretching back to that election, which demonstrated the importance of having a strong party apparatus in place.
The machine sputtered in 2014, when Republicans won most races, putting the GOP in control of both chambers of the Legislature and all state constitutional offices. After that mid-term race, Reid and Lange chatted about the 2016 election.
“He goes: ‘This is what we’re going to do: voter registration, voter registration, voter registration,’” Lange said. From that point on, Reid always asked her how voter registration efforts were going.
“He knew that that was the most important thing for us to do to get to where we needed to be in the end,” she said.
Reid has always been the “steady hand” for the party, said Lange, noting his willingness to help raise money and get good people in place.
Lange, whose term as chair ends in March, said it will be different without Reid, but she’s looking forward to seeing the work that Cortez Masto does moving forward. As for Reid, he’ll still be around.
“I think he will be a person to talk to,” Lange said. “He will be a good adviser. His role will change, but he’s still Sen. Reid.”
THE DREAM ACT
Jose Dante Parra, a former senior adviser for Reid, oversaw Hispanic media outreach efforts in his 2010 campaign. Parra credits Reid with recognizing a growing community and seeing the value in reaching out.
But it wasn’t all about demographics and number crunching to prepare for the next election. In 2010, Reid brought up for a vote in the Senate the DREAM Act, a bill aimed at helping young immigrants.
Internal polling suggested Reid would hurt himself, but Reid dug in and did it anyway because he “felt it was the right thing to do,” Parra said.
Attack ads followed that called Reid the “best friend that illegal immigrants had.” One national poll suggested Reid would lose the election that year by 4 percentage points and he instead won by almost 6 points, buoyed by independent voters turned off by negative ads and high Latino turnout.
“There’s no Harry Reid number 2,” Parra said. “You can’t replicate that, but I think he leaves a lot of great lessons and a great example for the people who will follow him.”
Reid’s efforts have attracted allies like the well-organized Culinary Local 226, which represents more than 57,000 workers in Nevada resorts and casinos.
“Sen. Reid was ahead of his time as far as recognizing the emerging immigrant Latino population here, which is in many cases reflective of our membership,” said D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the umbrella organization that the Culinary union belongs to.
While preparing for a potential strike in 2007 for Nevada workers, Taylor talked to Reid about it. “He said, ‘I’ll be on the picket line,’” Taylor said.
“You don’t replace Sen. Reid,” Taylor said. “You follow in his footsteps, and those are big footsteps.”
Review-Journal Washington correspondent Gary Martin contributed to this report.
Contact Ben Botkin at email@example.com or 702-384-8710. Follow @BenBotkin1 on Twitter.