When Nevadans vote next year for their U.S. senator, Harry Reid’s name won’t appear on the ballot for the first time in three decades. But even though the powerful and polarizing Senate minority leader is retiring, that doesn’t mean he won’t have a role in in, and impact on, next year’s election.
The first indication of Reid’s effect on the contest to replace him came within hours of his official retirement announcement in March. In an interview with Nevada public radio, the five-term senator said he had talked to former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and encouraged her to run for his seat.
“If she runs, I’m going to help her,” he said. “Whoever runs against Catherine will be a loser.”
Less than two weeks later, Cortez Masto officially announced her candidacy. She is no newcomer to statewide politics, having spent eight years as attorney general, finishing her tenure at the start of 2015.
Despite her early announcement in April, it took several months before she had an opponent. After significant speculation about who might run against her, Republicans landed a top candidate in three-term Congressman Joe Heck, who announced his decision in early July. A physician, Iraq War veteran and brigadier general in the Army Reserves, Heck won a sweeping re-election in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District last year.
Both he and Cortez Masto are seen as strong, if cautious, lower-profile candidates by those within Nevada politics, and their race is expected to be hard fought, close and extremely expensive. It will also have important national implications.
Republicans see Nevada and Colorado as their two best opportunities to flip a Democratic Senate seat, and there have been significant problems in the search for a candidate in Colorado. Democrats, on the other hand, are attempting to flip seats in a number of swing states and win back control of the upper chamber, where the GOP currently holds the majority with 54 seats. A loss in Nevada would be a serious blow to their chances.
Those high stakes, coupled with Nevada’s importance in the 2016 presidential race – both as an early primary proving ground and as a key swing state in the general election – mean the Silver State will be crucial to both parties next year. And critical to the strategies of both Senate campaigns will be the man they are seeking to replace.
Reid as a Fundraising Tool
Heck’s campaign wasted little time in crafting the message that he was the right man to replace Reid in the Senate. In late July and early August, his team sent out five fundraising emails attacking the Democratic leader – with subject lines such as “Replace Harry Reid / Undo his legacy” and “Harry Reid – PAYBACK.” None of his fundraising emails have even named his actual opponent, Cortez Masto. In fact, one email that referenced a Nevada visit on Monday by President Obama to raise funds for Cortez Masto referred to her simply as “Harry Reid’s handpicked successor.” Robert Uithoven, a state-based Republican strategist, called the strategy a “very smart play.”
“Harry Reid’s name ID in Nevada is near 100 percent and hers is not, so I think Joe Heck is playing it smart by not giving her the free name ID boost right now,” Uithoven told RealClearPolitics.
Several sources tell RCP that Heck mentions Reid in nearly every speech on the campaign trail. Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said he expects that strategy to continue for the next 15 months.
“I think you’ll watch the campaign and the ads and think Harry Reid is running for re-election,” Herzik said. Cortez Masto, he continued, “is going to, and already has been, deemed … a shadow Harry Reid.”
Democrats, for the most part, have brushed off this message in fundraising pitches, saying that attacking Reid is par for the course for Republicans in Nevada. They also argued that Heck’s decision to almost entirely ignore his opponent is a sign that Cortez Masto will be difficult to attack given her successful tenure as the state’s top law enforcement official.
“As far as Congressman Heck attacking Harry Reid, I think that’s a prerequisite to being a Republican in Nevada. You have to do that and I don’t think it’s going to matter all that much,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He’s their favorite punching bag, but he can take it. It’s never worked yet.”
Reid is not likely to spend much time on the campaign trail backing the woman he hopes will succeed him. Though he won five consecutive elections – including several that many political observers expected him to lose – Reid has a very high unfavorable rating among state voters, and isn’t seen as a fiery campaigner. Instead, he’s a wily strategist and commands a vast network of supporters, donors and activists who will be crucial to Cortez Masto.
“From a process standpoint, it helps her tremendously,” said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic consultant in Nevada who knows Cortez Masto but is not affiliated with her campaign. “Campaigns require resources and candidates need to be able to raise money to be able to mount a credible campaign, so the fact that Reid is able to throw his name behind her and contact his donors and say here’s the candidate I’d like you to support, it makes it easier for her to break into that network.”
It was that activist network – known to many in Nevada as the “Reid Machine” – that helped him pull off a very difficult re-election campaign in 2010, when he was the majority leader in the Senate and many predicted he would lose. That network will be crucial to Cortez Masto’s fundraising in what may be one of the most expensive races in the country (a combined $50 million-plus was spent on the 2010 race). Also, her operation has strong links to Reid, including Scott Fairchild, Cortez Masto’s campaign manager, who was in line to be Reid’s campaign manager had he sought a sixth term, according to veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston.
“There is an intertwining there that is unmistakable and there is no question that Harry Reid is helping her raise money,” Ralston told RCP.
Neither Cortez Masto’s campaign, nor Heck’s, returned multiple requests for comment. Reid’s office declined to comment for this story.
The Importance of Reid’s Seat
Beyond both campaigns’ strategic need to utilize Reid in their election strategies, there are strong emotions attached to the outcome of this race. Democrats, and Reid in particular, do not want to see the seat he has held since the late 1980s turn over to Republicans. Reid is seen as the leader of the Democratic Party in Nevada and much of the party’s infrastructure exists thanks to his efforts. It would be a blow to his legacy to have a Republican succeed him, particularly since a Republican, Dean Heller, won the Silver State’s other Senate seat in 2012 (he had been appointed to replace John Ensign, who stepped down amid scandal, the previous year).
“I don’t think he wants his legacy to be two Republican senators from Nevada,” said David Damore, a political science professor from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Across the aisle, however, there is deep-seeded animosity toward Reid both in the state and nationwide. Republicans saw 2010 as a missed opportunity to boot him from office, and would relish the idea of beating the person he supports and flipping his seat.
For Heck, the motivation may be personal. He was elected as a state senator in 2004 and served for four years before being ousted in 2008. Several Nevada political observers told RCP that Reid and his Democratic machine were actively involved in that defeat for two reasons: first, because they wanted to take as much advantage of the 2008 presidential election as possible and create a Democratic wave. Second, because Heck represented a potential challenger to Reid in 2010.
“Heck’s defeat is slightly perplexing. They came after him very harshly,” said one Nevada GOP strategist who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “The Reid machine has always [played] the long game, so taking out somebody like Heck early on probably always factored into their plans.”
Several sources attributed Heck’s loss in that race almost entirely to Reid and the Obama wave of 2008, and gave little credit to Heck’s opponent, Shirley Breeden, who won the election by just over 1,000 votes. Ralston described Heck’s opponent as “a cipher … who essentially hid for most of the campaign and won relatively easily because of what Reid’s team did.” Eight years later, Heck has an opportunity to pay Reid back.
“He’s been on the other end, on the losing end of the Harry Reid Democratic machine before, and so I think it’s also a little bit personal for him to try to beat the Harry Reid machine this time around,” Uithoven, the Republican strategist who worked for Heck in the state Senate, told RCP. “I think if Joe Heck is successful in November of next year, he will have been successful in getting a little bit of revenge on Harry Reid.”
Can’t Rely on Reid Alone
Though both campaigns may rely on Reid heavily – Masto for support, Heck for a fundraising focal point – there is a danger to those strategies. Several Nevadans who spoke to RCP questioned whether Reid’s supporters would come out in full force to support Cortez Masto, given that she would lack the power and prestige he had in Washington, thanks to his long tenure and position atop the Democratic caucus. His prominence in the Senate was one of the reasons people donated to him en masse, according to Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Nevada. Lokken said the possibility that Reid’s support network will diminish is a “very clear concern.”
Both Herzik and Ralston pointed to organized labor, a powerful group within Nevada politics, as a key constituency that has backed Reid in high numbers, saying their support will be critical for Cortez Masto to win over.
Ralston asserted that she “can’t just rely on, well, ‘I am inheriting everything from Harry Reid.’ No. She’s … going to have to make the connection with a couple of key constituencies.”
(What’s more, Reid’s strength in his home state has not always been transferrable, even to blood relatives: His son Rory lost his 2010 bid for governor to Brian Sandoval.)
For Heck, while there are numerous advantages to criticizing Reid, there are dangers in overdoing it. Some voters might be turned off by a campaign that focuses its attacks on someone who isn’t running for office.
Ralston told RCP the execution of those attacks will be critical, and that without tying Reid and Cortez Masto together through specific policies, there’s a risk that “you can have the whole thing blow up in your face.” Herzik said this could become particularly problematic if outside groups flood the airwaves with such attacks, causing a backlash.
“You do have to give people a reason to vote for Joe Heck,” he said.
While the GOP standard-bearer is expected to target the senior senator throughout the campaign, several sources said he will need to talk at length about his own background and introduce himself to voters, given that his district covers a geographically small portion of southern Nevada. He must also at some point shift the rhetoric and criticism towards his actual opponent.
With nearly 15 months until Election Day, however, the contest is in its very early stages, and plenty could happen in the coming months to shift the tide or reverse any momentum from one side to the other. Absent a dramatic change, Nevada will likely be one of the most important races in the nation, especially if Democrats appear likely to secure enough victories in other swing states that control of the Senate hinges on the outcome. With the stakes potentially so high, and given his prominence as the de-facto leader of the Democratic Party in the state, Harry Reid’s name will loom large in the race, even if it won’t appear on any ballots.
James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.