As Nevada’s most powerful pol readies his depature, state Democrats work to keep his winning streak alive
There will never be another Sen. Harry Reid.
Not just the Sen. Harry Reid of television fame, the one who takes to the Senate floor to inveigh against the Koch Brothers, or Mitt Romney, or coal-energy producers, the one who travels to Nevada to call presidents and would-be presidents “losers.” But also the Sen. Harry Reid behind the scenes, the one who performs the decidedly unglamorous tasks of fundraising, assembling coalitions, recruiting candidates and finding, training and installing the right people in the right jobs so things come out his way on Election Day.
That’s the Sen. Harry Reid who built the infamous Reid Machine of Nevada politics. And in January 2017, both Harry Reids will be gone from the Senate, from the national scene and from the central locus of Nevada political power. The question is: Will the party, and the machine, that Reid built outlive him? Or was it custom-designed for the needs and ends of a single man, destined to wither once its patron rides into the sunset?
Some things never change
Insiders note that, at least in the very short term, the mechanism Reid put in place will still fire on all cylinders. He has committed to ensuring his successor is former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is benefitting from his anointment from the start.
The people Reid has groomed for years will also be part of the 2016 election cycle. They include Rebecca Lambe, the low-profile, high-powered consultant who is the machine’s Nevada captain; Zach Zaragoza, executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party; former Reid chief of staff and press secretary Susan McCue; the prolific party spokesman Zack Hudson; and, of course, party chairwoman Roberta Lange.
Not only that, but Reid’s most valuable gift to the party and the machine — the February party caucus — will remain, ensuring Nevada gets plenty of attention from would-be presidential candidates of both parties, plenty of money for party organization and TV advertising, and an outsize role in helping to choose the next president.
But insiders agree that there won’t be a single person at the top of the machine. “You can’t replace Reid, for all sorts of reasons,” says Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners and longtime Democratic consultant. “It’s going to take a team to fill that gap.”
Who will be on that team? Certainly it includes U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, who with Reid’s departure will become the senior elected Democrat in the state, and who has faced off with the Reid machine a time or two. (She refused to back away in 2006 when Reid tried to anoint former Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson as the Democratic nominee for governor, and again in 2012 when he backed state Sen. Ruben Kihuen for the congressional seat Titus ran for and won.)
If Cortez Masto wins Reid’s seat, she’ll have a seat at the leadership table, as will the eventual winner of the Congressional District 4 race (Kihuen, once a Reid volunteer, has announced his intention to run, as has former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores). Legislative leaders will be part of the team, too.
“We have a lot of people who are involved in working to see it continue,” said one insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.
All for one, and one for one?
But the question persists: Does the Reid machine work only for Reid? After 1998, when he nearly lost his closest election ever to John Ensign, he moved to ensure he’d never have a brush with political death again. Since then, the Reid machine has seemingly waxed in years when the senator’s name appeared on the ballot (2004, 2010) and waned in years when it did not (2002, 2006, 2014). But it performed for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, helping him boost registration and win the state twice.
Reid loyalists reject the idea that his party-building activities are primarily self-serving. They say his penchant for recruiting candidates for races large and small isn’t only about protecting himself from future challenges, but building a bench to perpetuate Democratic success. (Think of Reid’s iron-fisted efforts to avoid a Democratic primary in the 2012 U.S. Senate primary, smoothing the way for Rep. Shelley Berkley.) And they insist the heart of his efforts is less about Reid himself and more about advancing the Democratic agenda. They point to the network of former Reid staffers and volunteers who hold jobs here and across the country, whose efforts on hard-fought campaigns in Nevada prepared them to help elect Democrats everywhere.
And Reid didn’t become the leader he is overnight, either: He built the party slowly, with a painstaking, behind-the-scenes labor that doesn’t make headlines, but — eventually — wins elections. “It’s not the fun work,” one insider said.
Surely, there’s some truth to that; Reid engenders more hatred among Republicans than any other Silver State politician, owing mostly to his lightning-rod role as chief of the Senate Democrats. The animus increases by orders of magnitude as Reid’s machine delivers successive victories, not just on Election Day, but long before, in keeping more threatening candidates out of his races (Jim Gibbons in 2004, or Sue Lowden in 2010) while ensuring only weak, flawed candidates remain to run (Richard Ziser in 2004, Sharron Angle in 2010).
But will Reid’s machine help Cortez Masto replace him next year, retake Congressional District 4 from Republican Cresent Hardy and return the Assembly to Democrats? That remains to be seen. But perhaps one of Reid’s gifts to his local party has been to show they can win in Nevada, ensuring national attention from donors and cementing its reputation as a battleground state.
Democrats: The next generation
Vassiliadis says the machine, going into the future, will face new challenges. Labor isn’t necessarily unified, with private-sector unions sometimes at odds with public-sector unions. And, as the 2014 election showed, Democrats can’t simply count on minorities and young voters to turn out without some tangible return on their votes.
Not only that, but modern politics increasingly resembles marketing, as political campaigns in the mold of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 efforts build relationships with voters the way companies do with customers. The social media, scientific voter-targeting and technological advances of modern campaigns are things that new leaders will need to master if they’re to replicate Reid’s old-school successes.
So the next generation won’t just run the machine, Vassiliadis said. They’ll have to transform it for the 21st century. And they’ll have to retain blue-collar, working-class Democrats while also catering to minority and youth demographics. That’s going to take time, just as it did to build the machine in the first place.
“We can’t go back to winning because the other guy is bad,” Vassiliadis said. The party will have to recover the lost art of politics, giving voters a positive reason to head to the polls — without the winning argument that keeping Reid in office meant keeping the clout of the majority leader.
The Reid machine and the people who run it have a unique opportunity, Vassiliadis said. But it won’t be about replacing the man who built it. Because there will never be another Senator Harry Reid.