The demise of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project – unpopular among Nevadans – couldn't have come at a better time for Harry Reid, the embattled Senate majority leader who faces an uphill reelection bid in the coming midterm elections.
The notoriously blunt and unpolished senator, who once called President George W. Bush a liar and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan a hack, desperately needed a political victory, and he was no doubt grateful to be able to take credit for stopping Yucca Mountain.
A few weeks earlier, Senator Reid found himself apologizing for his "poor choice of words," after he was quoted in a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign as saying Barack Obama could win because he is "light skinned" and had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Republicans pounced. Some called for him to resign his majority leader post.
Whether those comments will matter nine months from now in Nevada, a state with the second-highest unemployment rate and highest foreclosure rate, depends in part on how much political hay his GOP opponent manages to make of them – and whether Reid himself can persuade voters he can do more for them than someone new.
Still, Reid can't afford many more political missteps.
Nationally, he has become something of a political lightning rod for championing Mr. Obama's healthcare reform plan. And here in Nevada, a state with a strong libertarian streak where the antitax "tea party" movement is growing, he has become something of a pariah.
Nevadans gave him only a 33 percent favorability rating in a January Mason-Dixon Polling & Research phone survey. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that the top three contenders for the Republican nomination would likely beat Reid if the election were held today.
Republicans would rejoice to see the most powerful Democrat in Congress fall, just as former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle did in 2004. A Reid defeat, moreover, would be seen as a rebuke to the healthcare bill the majority leader has worked so hard to maneuver through Congress.
But Reid won't go quietly. The Senate contest here promises to be hard fought and will unfold on the national stage. Reid says he's prepared to spend at least $25 million to win. While the Republican challenger is unlikely to be able to match that figure, conservatives nationwide are already donating to the defeat-Reid effort.
The Nevada Senate election is expected to be, more or less, a referendum on the Obama agenda, much like the Massachusetts special election that sent Republican Scott Brown to Washington to fill the seat held for decades by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Still, Reid is hoping that Obama can energize his reelection bid. The president arrived Thursday in Las Vegas to headline a fundraiser for the senator. At a town hall meeting Friday, he unveiled a $1.5 billion plan to help ease the nation's foreclosure crisis, which has deeply damaged Nevada's economy. But even though Obama aims to protect the Democratic majority in Congress, his ability to help Reid and other Democratic lawmakers facing uncertain reelection bids may be limited as his own popularity slides.
"[Reid]'s in a tight spot. He knows he's in a tight spot. But he has been winning elections for a long time," says Ted G. Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Harry would have been happy to let someone else carry the lead on healthcare. Taking on a leadership position heightens your risk."
In Searchlight, Nev., the rugged desert hamlet of 798 people where Reid was born and still calls home, the senator and the election are part of the daily chatter at the Nugget Casino, a dowdy gambling den.
"I'm the only one who sticks up for him," complains Noreen, a waitress who refused to give her last name. During her off-hours, she says, she won't even sit anymore at the casino bar, where disdain for Reid runs high.
Outside one of the mobile homes that fill the rocky hills around Searchlight, Gary Shook, a retired gold miner, quips that Reid is nothing more than a "socialist," echoing the populist anger heard on conservative talk radio and at tea party rallies. "I don't think anyone would have too much trouble beating him."
Mr. Shook does not know who on the Republican side is vying to challenge Reid – and therein lies the rub for those who want to oust the four-term senator. Ahead of the June primary, Reid opponents are searching for someone with enough broad appeal to attract, especially, the 15 percent of voters in Nevada who are undeclared.
So far, Sue Lowden, an ex-state senator and former television news anchor, and Danny Tarkanian, a Las Vegas businessman and the son of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, are leading the pack of GOP contenders. Both are courting tea party activists, latching onto their antitax, antiestablishment mantra.
While campaigning around Nevada in her 40-foot RV, Ms. Lowden says she's meeting a lot of angry people emboldened by the tea party movement. And many, she says, feel that Reid "is no longer listening to the folks who live here" and instead serving only the federal government.
Mr. Tarkanian says he doesn't think "any amount of money" can save Reid. "You have an individual who is extremely unpopular who has been pushing an unpopular agenda."
Hugh Jackson, a blogger who runs the left-leaning website Las Vegas Gleaner, agrees.
"Polling indicates that a potted plant could beat him right now," says Mr. Jackson. But that could change, he says, if the economy improves or even if Congress passes a healthcare bill. "His candidacy, in a large part, is tied to those national conditions."
Still, issues unique to Nevada may matter more, says Jackson. Ten percent of the state's housing units received foreclosure notices last year, according to RealtyTrac, which tracks foreclosures nationwide. The jobless rate hit 13 percent, the second highest in the country behind Michigan. Leading industries – gambling and construction – have been hit hard.
Reid is already spending money on his campaign. Television spots have been running for weeks now, touting the benefits of being the state with "America's most powerful senator."
"Over a third of Nevada's voters have never seen Senator Reid's name on the ballot, given the state's robust population growth since his last election in 2004," wrote Brandon Hall, Reid's Nevada campaign manager, in an e-mail. "We will run an aggressive campaign to ensure Senator Reid will continue his work creating jobs and getting Nevada's economy back on track as leader of the Senate."
Yucca Mountain is bound to loom large in the campaign. Reid warred against the decades-old government plan to store spent nuclear fuel at the site, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. When the Obama budget proposal eliminated funding for the project, Reid wasted little time in claiming victory.
Even so, says Jackson, "I don't think an issue like Yucca Mountain is going to carry him across the finish line. I don't know that Nevadans see that in their daily lives."
Reid, he says, must energize Democrats, who helped deliver the state to Obama in 2008 with 55 percent of the vote, and persuade enough independents that the state is better off in his hands than in those of a Senate newcomer. "There is a lot of disaffection out there. There is anger from the tea party side," Jackson says. "But there is [also] a lot of disaffection from the left, who feel that Democrats no longer have any spine."
With feelings about the majority leader running so strong, the Nevada race is shaping up to be a bare-knuckle political fight to the end, most political analysts agree.
At this point, says Professor Jelen, "I wouldn't bet a nickel either way."
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