Reid Has a Secret Weapon

Posted May 8, 2009 at 6:32pm

As one of the GOP’s top targets in 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been making an aggressive push to improve his standing at home. He’s been fundraising, traveling the state and making the case to Nevadans that he has the seniority and clout to keep delivering.

But Reid may have found the ultimate trump card: President Barack Obama.

The administration’s decision last week to kill a proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain is the latest in a string of moves the White House has taken to help Reid in his runup to next year’s election.

A Democratic Senate aide said Reid’s success in getting the administration to kill off the controversial waste project shows “his influence in this administration, and the fact that they rely on him for so many of the things they need makes it easier for him to get things for Nevada.—

As part of that narrative, Reid has flooded the state with some $1.6 billion in earmarks and economic stimulus funds since Obama assumed office. And, he has hosted high-profile visits from administration officials, including Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in April to tour a job-training center and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in May to announce $300 million in stimulus funds being sent to the state.

Although neither visit was billed as a campaign stop, both secretaries came at the behest of Reid and both focused their remarks on his role in the state’s economic recovery.

“It is more than accurate to say that both Solis and Salazar came at Reid’s request,— a Democrat familiar with the situation said.

Obama is also headlining a Nevada fundraiser for Reid on May 26, an event at which Reid’s campaign hopes to raise significant campaign contributions and also to re-enforce their message that Reid is closely tied to an immensely popular president.

But perhaps even more critical than Obama’s visit was the administration’s announcement this week that it was zeroing out funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project — a decades-long effort that was opposed by virtually every major Nevada politician and was unpopular with a majority of the state’s residents.

An August poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that 58 percent of Nevadans opposed the government’s nuclear waste disposal plans at Yucca Mountain, and 60 percent of Nevada voters said the issue would influence their vote when it came to the presidential election.

Las Vegas-based political columnist Jon Ralston said that these days Yucca Mountain isn’t exactly a top priority for Nevada, except in the minds of environmentalists and those who feel strongly about energy issues.

But Ralston said Reid’s role in helping to shut off funding for the facility will be useful to his re-election bid. Reid, Ralston said, can use the issue to argue why it’s important for a state with a small population to have someone in a powerful position in Washington to watch out for Nevada’s interests.

“It’s not the ace in the hole, but it’s a nice card to have,— Ralston said. “It can be used as part of a campaign to say that Harry Reid as Majority Leader can do things for Nevada such as X,Y and Z, with one of those being helping to kill Yucca Mountain.—

And that seems to be exactly the line being delivered by those whose job it is to get Reid re-elected to a fifth term next year.

“This is only the latest example of Leader Reid delivering for Nevadans,— Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz said. “He’s a champion for his state, has an unmatched organization in the state, and works every day to represent Nevada’s interests in Washington.—

David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, said it’s too early to tell how important Reid’s victory on the Yucca Mountain project will be to his 2010 re-election.

“It might be something he can brag about, provided that he draws a decent opponent,— Damore said. “However, at this point, the GOP is having a very difficult time finding anyone with a credible chance of winning who wants to run.—

Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki seemed like the most promising Republican contender at the beginning of the cycle, until he was indicted in late 2008 for allegedly misusing government funds as the state treasurer. State Assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R) has also been mentioned, but she is coming off a 2008 state Senate primary loss and a 2006 defeat in the state’s 2nd Congressional district.

“Matters are made worse by the fact that the GOP has no money to offset the Democratic registration and turnout advantages, and [Sen.] John Ensign, the most prominent Republican in the state, who many had hoped would put his time and effort into rebuilding the state GOP organization, appears to be more interested in increasing his national level exposure perhaps with an eye towards 2012,— Damore said.

While Obama may be more closely allied with his former Illinois colleague, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D), Democrats said the president and Reid enjoy a strong relationship.

Although Reid publicly stayed out of the Democratic primary fight in 2007 and 2008 between Obama and now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats close to Reid have acknowledged that he urged Obama to enter the race. Once Obama had wrapped up the nomination, Reid worked aggressively to use the Senate as a vehicle to back up Obama’s campaign against the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). For instance, Reid spent a good part of the fall attacking the Bush administration and trying to link McCain to the unpopular president.

Since the inauguration, Reid’s office has tried to work closely with the White House on hot-button issues, including the economic stimulus package and the omnibus spending bill. In turn, the White House has taken care of Reid — through funding for Nevada projects in the omnibus and with decisions such as the Yucca Mountain announcement.

While Democrats said Reid’s ties to Obama will pay dividends next year, Republicans warned that it will ultimately be his downfall.

“The Obama administration clearly sees the same polls we do that show Harry Reid’s approval numbers sagging with Nevada voters. It speaks to his unpopularity at home that the most powerful Member of the Senate is relying upon reinforcements from Washington to boost his re-election bid,— National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said Friday.

Walsh and other Republicans said that while a top-tier challenger has yet to emerge, they are confident they will field a good candidate. Obama’s Yucca decision and the repeated visits by administration officials is “emblematic of Harry Reid’s problem, that he’s got more support from people in D.C. than he does in Nevada,— a Republican strategist argued.