Why Harry can be beat

Over the holidays, a spirited debate took place about the U.S. senator Nevadans love to hate: Harry Reid.

It began after The Wall Street Journal published a Dec. 27 story headlined: “Sen. Reid Hits the Ground Running in Uphill Re-Election Bid,” to which I penned (or shall I say “pixeled”?) an Internet ditty entitled: “Can Harry Reid be knocked off?” A week-long discussion on my blog ensued. (See www.lvrj.com/blogs/sherm/)

I’m not sure why Harry would again dare voters to give him the boot. He’ll celebrate his 71st birthday on Dec. 2, 2010. At this stage of the majority leader’s career, he doesn’t have much, if anything, to prove. And, let’s face it, the rigors of campaigning in the vast expanse of Nevada demand stamina.

Not to mention that in the history of Nevada elections, there’s a fat folder labeled “The Bigger They Are,” and it’s filled with horror stories of entrenched incumbents who never saw it coming. Sen. Howard Cannon learned that the hard way.

But apparently Nevada’s most powerful senator ever is going to spin the election wheel once more. It begs the question: Can he (should he is another question) be beat? With the right opponent, I’d say the chances are fair to good, and the blueprint can be found in Reid’s 1998 re-election bid against Rep. John Ensign. At the time, Ensign had no business mounting a credible challenge to Harry, who was in the prime of his career.

It was only some 48 months earlier that Ensign had surprised longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Bilbray. Ensign was a virtual no-name to statewide voters. A lightweight on any scale. I knew John because he was a member of my Rotary Club. But with all due respect to my fellow Southwest Rotarians, membership there isn’t exactly a logical stepping stone to the U.S. Senate.

Yet Ensign beat Bilbray and then came within 429 votes of unseating Reid. (Had Ensign sought a second recount, some say, the outcome might have flipped.)

So, what’s Ensign got that Reid doesn’t? The only word to describe it is “likability.” While age, looks and speechifying were in Ensign’s favor in 1998, it was Reid’s gloomy personality that nearly gave the election to his young opponent.

As hard as it may be to believe, given Reid’s political stature, Harry has difficulty connecting with people. Before large groups, he projects a zombie vibe. In person, he appears preoccupied. Looks like a smile might hurt. Never seems comfortable. And perhaps his greatest re-election liability is that he too quickly defaults to bunker mentality with constituents, creating unnecessary suspicion and animosity. Unlike his mentor, former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, he can’t seem to find ways to charm critics.

Over the years, those characteristics have sown a negative cumulative effect on Nevadans.

I wouldn’t say Nevadans hate Harry, but it is entirely fair to say that Nevadans have a ho-hum relationship with their longtime senior senator. “Reid” and “endeared” are two words not found in the same sentence.

This ambivalence is remarkable. Reid’s achievements rightfully put him in the company of Nevada political luminaries like Cannon, Sen. Pat McCarran, Sen. Paul Laxalt and Sen. Alan Bible. Yet a good chunk of voting Nevadans treat Reid like a bad haircut — with teeth-gritting toleration.

What does that tell you?

It should tell you that if Harry runs again, you can count on Nevadans giving his opponent a long, hard look.

And, if there’s another John Ensign out there, count on more than that.

Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of the Review-Journal and president of Stephens Media.

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