Harry Reid's Election Challenge in Nevada

When Nevada communications consultant and former Reagan adviser Sig Rogich ran into his old friend Sen. Harry Reid in D.C. recently, he thought the besieged Senate majority leader was looking weary. He asked Reid if he was tired. "Incredibly," Reid, who just turned 70, replied. That's hardly surprising. Reid has been working night and day for months to whip his unruly caucus into shape over health-care reform. But he's also got some serious headaches over his political future in Nevada.

There aren't many senators who've run in elections that came down to less than a thousand votes. But Harry Reid has done it—twice. In 1974, he made a run for a vacant Senate seat and lost to Paul Laxalt by around 600 votes. Two terms later, Laxalt retired and Reid captured the spot handily. His good fortune continued until 1998, when a young congressman named John Ensign challenged him. Reid barely scraped by, winning by just more than 400 votes. After cruising to an easy victory in 2004, Reid may be feeling some déjà vu. His approval ratings are abysmal, and although the GOP hasn't settled on a candidate, polls show both of their serious contenders beating Reid in head-to-head matchups. So why, as his national power and name recognition has increased, has Harry Reid gone backward?

"Simply put, Democrats won the Senate and he became majority leader," says Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports. Reid has never been hugely popular in Nevada. He's a proven legislator, but according to Charlie Cook, author of the influential Cook Report, "he has never had that strong personal bond with Nevadans—that chemistry and warmth." That makes life tough for the plain-spoken, terse Democrat in a state that until quite recently was reliably red. Nevadans went for Barack Obama in 2008, but they also voted for George W. Bush twice. When Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992, he was the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964. "Nevada was a Republican and fairly conservative state for a long time; only in recent years has it become a swing state," Cook told NEWSWEEK in an e-mail.

As the approval ratings of both Obama and Congress fall, Nevada's political dynamics spell trouble for many incumbent Democrats. When you're the majority leader, that's seriously bad news. "Any politician who gets into a leadership role like that has a tough time because they have to balance the needs of their leadership role against their representation of a state," Rasmussen says. Reid's job as leader requires him to be a strict partisan even though he comes from a purple state. That wasn't such a bad thing when George W. Bush was in the White House and he was a prominent critic of an unpopular administration. But now he's pushing the White House's agenda, and he won't be able to put distance between himself and Democratic policies that are dividing Nevadans. "He needs to be advocating for things that are popular with the Democratic base, and he represents a state where some of those views are not very well received," says Rasmussen. Unfortunately for Reid, the issue dominating headlines—health-care reform—isn't satisfying the base either, so he's fending off attacks from progressives as well.

Another issue Reid will confront is the transience of Nevada's population. Home to the largest gaming industry in the country, Nevada attracts hospitality and service workers, and both are sectors where employee turnover is relatively high. Those workers come and go. "Since his last election, probably 20 percent of the electorate is new," says Prof. Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno. Reid can't assume that those people know his record in the state or his compelling personal story. A scrawny, quiet kid, Reid grew up in the tiny, rough-and-tumble mining town of Searchlight, Nevada. His family was dirt poor, and both his parents drank excessively. In his memoir, Reid recounts how his father, who later committed suicide, would beat his mother. But new voters are mostly unaware of his "scrappy kid from Searchlight" narrative. What they do know is that since they've moved to Nevada, the economy has tanked and unemployment has skyrocketed as the tourism industry on which the Las Vegas area depends has been hit especially hard.

Rogich, who's angered local Republicans by throwing his support behind Reid, says that the majority leader hasn't started making his case to Nevadans in earnest. "We have to remind people of all that Harry Reid has done for this state," Rogich says. He suspects that when Reid's campaign starts forcefully presenting that message, Nevadans will realize they've benefited from having the majority leader represent them in D.C. Perhaps this argument—that forsaking Reid's influence for that of a junior member of the minority—will be a compelling argument to some, but Rasmussen is unconvinced that it will hold sway with most Nevadans. "Saying you have clout in a body that many people view as a den of thieves is sort of a mixed blessing," he says.

Reid's a fighter, though (he's a former boxer), and most Nevada political observers think it's way too early to count him out. He may not win popularity contests, but he brings home the bacon for the mining and gaming industries, and he's pivotal to negotiations to increase Nevada's dwindling water supply. And, after two decades of fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump, Barack Obama, at Reid's urging, has effectively terminated the project by winding down funding in his 2010 budget proposal. "He has delivered for key constituencies in Nevada. He's about getting deals done. Harry Reid is all about power not about popularity," says Herzik. "He's never been an extremely popular politician, and yet he continues to win."