With Harry Reid in state, we look back on his momentous career in Nevada politics

With Harry Reid in state, we look back on his momentous career in Nevada politics


After graduation, Reid returned to Nevada and quickly jumped into politics, winning a seat in the state assembly in 1968 at the age of 28. Just two years later, he set his sights on statewide office with a campaign for lieutenant governor. He had no trouble winning the primaries, winning 55-45 in the general election at the same time as his mentor O’Callaghan won a thrilling race for governor.

Reid sought further promotion in 1974, when longtime Democratic Senator Alan Bible announced his retirement. But as Republicans across the country faced a brutal political environment after the Nevada Watergate scandal, they were able to place a strong candidate in the former administration. Paul Laxalt.

democrats had a huge voter registration advantage at the time, and Reid enjoyed the support of the state’s powerful working-class groups, but Laxalt remained popular in the four years since he left office. Reid too made a mistake when he called on his opponent to disclose details of his family’s financial interests, later acknowledging, “One problem: His sister was a nun. That killed me.”

Reid’s prospects improved after President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, a decision that Laxalt compared to ‘a hundred pound weight around my neck’, but it wasn’t enough. Laxalt ended zoom out Reid 47.0-46.6, a margin of only 624 votes, making him the only Republican to topple a Democrat-occupied Senate seat that year.

The following year, Reid tried to come back by running for mayor of Las Vegas, but lost the officially impartial race. with a margin of 53-47 to fellow Democrat William Briare. However, this defeat would prove to be the low point rather than the end of what was to be a very long career. O’Callaghan, who was still governor, named his protégé chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1977. In that capacity, Reid found himself in a conflict with the Las Vegas mob—a conflict that nearly turned deadly in 1981 when his wife, Landra, discovered a bomb underneath the family car when she was about to start driving.

An opportunity to return to elected office arose in 1982 when Nevada first gained a second seat in the House. Reid decisively won both the primary and general election for the new 1st Congressional District in the southern corner of the state. And again, the opportunity to seek a senior position soon arose when Laxalt declined to run for a third term in 1986.

Reid’s opponent this time around was former Democratic Rep. Jim Santini, that Laxalt persuaded to switch sides and run to follow him. (Santini was also the last congressman to represent all of Nevada in the House, so in a way he was also Reid’s predecessor in the House.)

With the GOP’s slim majority at stake, Nevada became a major battleground. Santini spent the race portraying Reid as too liberal, and he took every opportunity to tie him to the country’s top Democrat, House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Reid, who campaigned as a moderate, went after his opponent’s missed votes, declaring, “If you only went to work 40% of the time, you’d be fired, and that’s exactly how many times he showed up.”

Reid also emphasized his opposition to the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, an issue that has remained a perennial issue in Nevada politics, arguing, “Jim Santini is slack about this. I’m doing something.” Laxalt and his closest ally, President Ronald Reagan, both campaigned hard on behalf of Santini in this close match, but Reid took a 50-45 win, and the Democrats recaptured the Senate by winning eight seats nationwide.

While Reid won renomination in 1992 by a relatively narrow 53-39 margin in return for wealthy eternal candidate Charles Woods, he yielded a 51-40 win in the general election even when Bill Clinton barely wore the state. But the toughest fight of his career—even tighter, it turns out, than his match against Laxalt—came in 1998, when he went up against Republican Rep. John Ensign in another expensive race.

Reid show ads early to introduce him to the many new voters who had arrived in booming Nevada since he was last on the ballot, and he once again used the national GOP’s support for a nuclear waste dump in Yucca Mountain against his enemy. Notably, Ensign even had to cancel a campaign appearance with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott because of Lott’s advocacy for the project.

But Ensign, who? turned to the old GOP playbook by portraying his opponent as a supporter of tax increases, he ran a strong race, with more than a few observers remarking that he was a far superior campaigner than, as longtime political analyst Jon Ralston put it at the time, the “charismatically challenged” seated . Reid this time won 49.9-47.8-a difference from only 428 votes—after an election that took place more than a month to solve. As a sign of his increasing influence, he was selected as the minority whip of his party before the result was final. (Just two years later, Ensign would decisively win the other Nevada Senate, but in 2011 he resigned in disgrace after trying to hide an extramarital affair.)

Reid finally enjoyed it a crushing reelection in 2004 becoming the top Democrat in the Senate after Tom Daschle’s defeat in South Dakota that same year; in 2006 he rose to the post of Majority Leader after his party turned the room. But Reid’s powerful role made him an easy target for Republicans both nationally and at home, especially as President Barack Obama’s popularity began to collapse. He entered the 2010 campaign with approval ratings so low that fellow senators were unobtrusively preparing for what appeared to be an inevitable battle to succeed him as leader.

What happened instead was a still famous campaign defined by both what Ralson called Reid’s “Terminator-esque determination, ruthlessness and discipline became preparation” and through gross GOP errors. Reid and his team had spent years registering new Democratic voters, an effort that included the state’s historic early 2008 presidential caucus, and had built up a massive voter turnout machine. Reid’s network also successfully spent the 2008 cycle ousting emerging Republican politicians — including Rep. Jon Porter and Secretary of State Joe Heck and Bob Beers – before they could challenge the Senator in 2010.

Reid managed to defeat another formidable foe, Rep. Dean Heller, from entering by raising large sums of money. Ralson also reported that Reid played a part in moving the primary from August to June to ensure he would have more time to attack his ultimate GOP foe. But what happened next may have surpassed even the senator’s most ardent expectations.

In the GOP primaries, Reid’s allies blew the state of Sen. Sue Lowden, whom they now regarded as their strongest enemy, hoping they could at least harm her for a general election. But Lowden helped destroy her own campaign when she suggested, in footage filmed by Reid’s campaign, that America return to a health care system where people used poultry as barter.

“[I]”Back in the day,” Lowden said, “our grandparents would take a chicken to the doctor and tell me I’d paint your house.” She would never bring it down. Republican voters instead nominated former Councilman Sharron Angle, a decision that had dire consequences.

Reid went after Angle right after she won the primaries and went on to highlight each of her over the next few months. many, many blunders (her most infamous mistake may have been telling several Latino students that “some of you look a little more Asian to me”), but it didn’t stop there.

Reid focused on provoking Latino voters even though he knew that many of them would vote for Republican governor candidate Brian Sandoval over his own son, Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid. (The younger Reid wrongly believed his father would not rejoin when he launched his ultimately failed bid.) The Senator too benefited from notes from Republicans like state Senate minority leader Bill Raggio, who either valued his ability to care for Nevada or loathed Angle.

Any survey released in the last few weeks showed the incumbent losses, but Reid’s team, as Ralston would write right after his win, had much more accurate numbers from pollster Mark Mellman who helped him push Democrats forward at a time when Team Blue was at a serious disadvantage in terms of turnout nationally. The majority leader won what would turn out to be his last race 50-45, giving his party a surprising victory on an otherwise gloomy night.

Ahead of the 2016 cycle, Reid initially said he would run again, but after a horrific sports injury that left him nearly blind in one eye, he chose not to. However, the machine he built helped his favorite successor, former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, win a thrilling race to succeed him and keep his seat in Democratic hands.





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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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