Reid works carefully not to be haunted by the ghost of Chic Hecht

I think the answer to your question is Chic Hecht.

You remember Chic Hecht. He was a very nice guy and much smarter than he sometimes sounded, but by anyone’s measure, he wasn’t much of a politician.

In 1982, Jacob “Chic” Hecht shocked Nevada’s political experts by knocking off four-term U.S. Senate powerhouse Howard Cannon. It’s arguably the biggest upset in Nevada political history.

Your question, of course, is why would Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bother to work hard to bring President Barack Obama to Las Vegas this week for a ritzy fundraiser at Caesars Palace?

The answer: To remind all critics, skeptics, opposing campaign financiers and big dreamers that he has no intention of being tripped up by the next Chic Hecht. Or anyone else.

It’s hardly news that polls show Reid is politically vulnerable. He’s been vulnerable for, what, maybe three decades now. So it’s no big surprise that a recent statewide survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research and sponsored by the Review-Journal showed Reid vulnerable. Half the voters questioned recognized Reid in the “unfavorable” category with 38 percent recognizing him favorably and 11 neutral.

That begs this question: Who are the liars who claim to be neutral about Harry Reid?

Love Reid or hate him, but after all these years I defy anyone to be neutral. The man has been in the breach for just about every major political question Nevada has faced in the past four decades. He’s made scores of friends and, according to the polls, about as many enemies.

While that survey reported 35 percent of voters would re-elect Reid, 45 percent would vote to replace him, and 17 percent would consider a change. Those numbers, and the daily pounding Reid takes courtesy of GOP spiritual leader Rush Limbaugh, have some folks speculating the senator from Searchlight is on the ropes.

But to consider a change, someone will have to part those ropes and climb into the ring. To take on Reid, a candidate will have to be prepared to fight someone capable of raising upward of $20 million — and generating millions more to bolster Nevada’s Democratic Party statewide.

Reid is no Cannon, who was tired of politics and distracted by a federal investigation. I’m guessing Reid lives for this kind of intrigue.

But learning something about Hecht, who died in 2006, is instructive. He was elected to the state Senate in 1966 as a Republican from a district dominated by Democrats. He was conservative but didn’t scream about it. He spent eight years in the Legislature.

Few gave Hecht a chance to beat Cannon, who died in 2002. Cannon was a four-term incumbent, held coveted committee seats and was an experienced pork-barrel politician.

Think Cannon wasn’t confident?

“I’m more likely to be run over by a Mack truck than lose to Chic Hecht,” he told an associate.

Cannon and his inner circle underestimated Hecht and the power of the Reagan Revolution, and the incumbent was mired in scandal as Election Day approached.

Hecht enjoyed first-cabin treatment from Sen. Paul Laxalt and popular President Ronald Reagan, who made two trips to Nevada in fundraising support of the underdog.

“They promised me an awfully lot, and they came through,” Hecht recalled to Cannon biographer Michael Vernetti in “Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada.”

Would Sen. John Ensign do something so public to help Reid’s opponent?

Will the state GOP stop ranting long enough to embrace a moderate Republican against Reid?

Politics being what it is, Hecht was a one-term senator who today is probably best known for uttering the marvelous malaprop “nuclear suppository” to describe the proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository and for being saved from choking by Sen. John Kerry.

And, of course, for beating Howard Cannon.

Cannon’s loss proved what Reid surely knows, that in politics and pugilism only a mope takes an opponent for granted. But it’s true Reid is vulnerable. He lost a Senate bid to Laxalt in 1974 and a mayoral try in 1975. He nearly lost to Ensign in 1988.

But unless 2010 finds Reid sinking in a substantial scandal and Nevada’s Republicans have found a way to stop eating their own long enough to mount a united front, this week’s star-studded fundraiser will be remembered as the opening act of Reid’s re-election tour.

And the next Chic Hecht will have to wait in the wings a while longer.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.

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