U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, his approval ratings in the basement and a Republican Party bulls-eye on his back, on Monday plans to formally launch what could be his last re-election campaign with a three-day bus tour of Nevada that starts where he began: in his hometown of Searchlight.
From the old mining town one hour south of the Strip, Reid will travel by campaign bus to Boulder City to tour a solar energy facility, then to Pahrump to visit a renewable energy project and finally to Las Vegas for a 3:30 p.m. rally and barbecue at Lorenzi Park to end day one.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Reid will be up in Northern Nevada, making stops in Minden, Carson City, Fallon, Fernley, Reno, Lovelock, Winnemucca, Blue Mountain and Elko in a series of “meet and greet” visits with voters. He’ll also tour businesses and projects that highlight efforts to create new jobs and clean energy industries in the state that now relies heavily on gaming and tourism.
Reid, like most Democrats up for re-election, is trying to shift focus from the divisive health care reform legislation that has proven unpopular with voters to jobs and improving the dismal economy.
After years of runaway growth that outpaced the rest of the nation, Nevada is suffering a record high unemployment rate of more than 13 percent as well as record home foreclosure rates.
“We did so well for so long, and we’ll get back there,” Reid said in early March on the day he filed for re-election, saying Nevada had been the “poster child” for the free enterprise system before the recession hit two years ago. “It’s not going to happen overnight but it’s happening.”
“We just have to look at the glass as being half full rather than half empty,” he added.
The 70-year-old Reid is seeking a fifth, six-year term in the U.S. Senate, weighed down by Nevadans’ worries about health care reform that he helped push to passage for President Barack Obama and battling critics who claim he has forgotten his Nevada roots after three decades in Washington.
He’s also in the cross-hairs of the national GOP which is seeking to do what the Republicans did to South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004 — take down the Democratic Party leader of the Senate.
“He’s in the same unenviable position that Senator Daschle was in: He stands for everything the Democratic Party and the president stand for that’s unpopular,” said Stuart Rothenberg whose well-respected political report considers the race leaning toward a Republican takeover. “Few incumbents who are behind in the polls at this point in the election cycle come back to win.”
Yet Reid, ever the fighter who has won close elections before, takes the challenge in stride. He welcomed some 10,000 Tea Party movement supporters to Searchlight on March 27 for an anti-Reid rally by inviting them to have a 10-cent cup of coffee at the Searchlight Nugget. And he has brushed aside the idea that his political career is coming to an end anytime soon.
“I’m focusing on seven months from now,” Reid said of the Nov. 2 general election when asked as he filed if this would be his final bid for office. “It’s a real challenge,” he added, noting that 500,000 to 600,000 people have moved to Nevada since his last difficult race in 1998, which he nearly lost.
Nevada had more than 2.6 million people at the end of 2009, some 2 million in Clark County. Of those, about 1 million are registered to vote: more than 450,000 Democrats, nearly 395,000 Republicans and about 164,000 people who call themselves non-partisan, according to the secretary of state’s office.
In 1998, Reid barely beat Republican John Ensign, who went on to win an open U.S. Senate seat in 2000. Ensign was re-elected in 2006 and has since come under an ethical cloud after admitting an affair with a former staffer. In 1998, Reid eked out a victory with 47.9 percent of the vote to 47.8 percent for Ensign, or 428 more votes after a recount.
In 2004, Reid easily beat his Republican opponent, Richard Ziser.
Much has changed since then, however. Reid’s power has vastly grown after he become Democratic minority leader of the Senate in 2005, succeeding Daschle, and then majority leader in 2007 after the Democratic Party took back both houses of Congress in the 2006 election.
As a result of the Democratic Party takeover and Obama’s 2008 election, Reid has become the main driver of the president’s agenda, which has made his popularity ratings dive in Nevada.
In the latest poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late February, 51 percent of voters said they have an unfavorable opinion of Reid compared to 33 percent favorable and 16 percent neutral.
The same Mason-Dixon poll showed Reid would lose to his top potential Republican opponents in a three-way race: The senator would get from 39 percent to 42 percent of the vote depending on who he faces with former state Sen. Sue Lowden the current GOP front-runner, followed by Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian and former Reno Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.
Reid could win, however, with a less-than-majority showing in a general election with multiple candidates, including a Tea Party contender, according to the poll that shows Reid gaining 36 percent, the GOP nominee 32 percent and an unnamed Tea Party hopeful 18 percent with 14 percent undecided.
Las Vegas businessman Scott Ashjian, a former Republican, has registered to run under the Tea Party of Nevada banner but the Tea Party movement has denounced him and he’s facing legal action to get his name removed from the ballot.
Meantime, there are several unknown nonpartisan candidates who will be on the Nov. 2 ballot as well as one candidate representing the Independent American parties, meaning the vote will be splintered, giving Reid a greater chance of eking out a hard-fought victory.
In the Democratic primary set for June 8, Reid faces several little known contenders.
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers
@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.