HENDERSON, Nev. — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid isn’t on this year’s ballot, but he has at least one heavyweight bout left in him.
Since returning to his home state over the weekend, the Senate Democratic leader has been the focus of near-constant attention, doing interviews, holding events and rallying the party faithful for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and for Catherine Cortez Masto to succeed him. Nevada has emerged as a critical battleground in the Democrats’ efforts to retake control of the Senate.
It seemed appropriate that the coda to Reid’s nearly 34-year career in Congress was playing out with the national focus on the Silver State and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas hosting the third and final presidential debate between Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump.
“I had nothing to do with that, OK?” Reid said of the venue selection at the tail end of an interview Monday in Reno, where he was lauded by the Washoe County Democrats.
But on Wednesday morning at a hilltop Mexican restaurant in this Las Vegas suburb where Reid now has a home, the 76-year-old lawmaker, who is retiring at the end of the year, was a little more willing to talk about his own efforts to raise the political profile of the state.
“One of the things as I look back, and I’m going to try to look forward in a few months rather than backwards, is the attention that I’ve had something to do with — attention focused on Nevada,” Reid said. “You know, it wasn’t a piece of cake to get the caucuses here originally. We worked hard on that.”
The advent of the first-in-the-West Democratic caucuses in 2008 helped power Democratic registration, creating a gap that the state’s Republicans have struggled to narrow.
“To have the last presidential debate here, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where my wife was a cheerleader, is very meaningful to me, and I think to the state and UNLV,” Reid said. “It’s been good for the country to see a state that is diverse. A state that represents the West as well as any state in America, and so I’m gratified that I had a little bit to do with this.”
The level of outside attention was evident at Lindo Michoacan, where the early arrivals among the lunch crowd were greeted by a row of local and national television cameras, as well as a TV crew with Mark McKinnon, the former adviser to President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain and one of the stars of Showtime’s “The Circus.”
McKinnon asked Reid about Roll Call’s report that he had compared Trump’s campaign to the boxer “Two Ton” Tony Galento, calling it “kind of fat, dirty and ugly.”
Reid replied by pointing out to McKinnon that he made the comment on his own, in a circumstance where he did not have prepared notes from his staff.
Reid has not been as charitable in speeches when he brings up Trump or Rep. Joe Heck, the Republican running against Cortez Masto for his seat whom Reid has taken to calling mini-Trump.
“On an airplane, sitting next to a woman, he reached under her skirt to feel her private parts. What kind of a man would do this? Donald Trump,” Reid said Tuesday. “Someone that Joe Heck supports.”
Heck backed off his support of the GOP nominee, citing personal reasons, after a leaked 2005 video surfaced showing Trump making comments about groping and kissing women without their consent.
But Heck’s campaign has also blasted Cortez Masto, the state’s former attorney general, for speaking out against Trump while being silent about inappropriate comments Reid has made in the past. (Reid once called George W. Bush a “loser” and “the worst president we’ve ever had,” and on another occasion, accused ex-Speaker John A. Boehner of running a “dictatorship.”)
“It’s to show the hypocrisy of my opponent. … You want to come out so vociferously against what one candidate has said, but you know what? You never said anything when Harry made those statements because, you know what, Harry is your political godfather,” Heck told reporters last week. “Of course, you’re not going to bite the hand that feeds you.”
“He’s extremely unpopular,” not just in my polling, Heck said of Reid.
“I think even Sen. Reid would say that some of his statements were inartfully phrased, but let’s talk about what Donald Trump is talking about,” Cortez Masto said in an interview. “His whole campaign platform has been based on racism, discrimination, misogyny. He’d rather build walls, right? And tear people apart.”
“My opponent was all in with Trump and had high hopes for him being the president, so no, he doesn’t get credit for, at the eleventh hour, running away from that type of individual,” Cortez Masto said of Heck.
Reid and Cortez Masto were briefly onstage together Tuesday night in Las Vegas at the Asian Political Alliance dinner.
“This good woman, Catherine, is the way we are going to control the United States Senate. All the pundits have said the Democrats can’t control the Senate unless they win the seat in Nevada,” Reid said. “We cannot take anything for granted.”
Reid has been touring the predominantly blue population centers in the state warning Democrats against complacency after a recent CNN/ORC poll found Cortez Masto leading Heck by 7 points.
‘None of the above …’
Heck is in a tough spot given the relative popularity of Trump in Nevada. Pro-Trump Republicans may opt to vote for “none of the above” on the Senate line to protest the congressman’s decision to revoke his backing.
That tension was evident last Saturday in Ely, in the northeastern part of the state, where Heck steered clear of blasting Trump in front of a group that included people wearing the billionaire’s famous campaign hats. He wound up off the campaign trail when Trump and Clinton were in town: A brigadier general in the Army Reserve, Heck was called up to active status at the Pentagon.
Reid has long been the political boss of Nevada Democrats, building up the state party infrastructure to a point where he said it is now viewed as perhaps the best in the country. He remains actively engaged in races up and down the ballot.
On Wednesday, he said things were looking good for Democrats in two hot House races that are critical to any attempt to get a majority in that chamber.
And Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico was quick to praise Reid’s contributions.
“Leader Reid, who always puts Nevada first, has always been a voice to make sure that we have leaders throughout Nevada that fight for Nevada, that fight for the people of Nevada,” Luján said. “Leader Reid was an important member of the team from a recruitment perspective, but also [for] getting out the vote in the state of Nevada.”
As for what comes next, Reid said Wednesday that he neither plans to write a fourth book nor does he need to spend more time with his children than he already does.
“Landra and I are proud we’ve spent plenty of time with our family over the years, so we have a lot of things to do, including maintaining our schedule with our children and grandchildren,” he said, referring to his wife of 57 years.
Noting the climate and his love of the desert, Reid predicted he’d be spending more time in the state. The condominium in the nation’s capital will remain, however, because, as he noted, he has spent 37 years in Washington and has doctors there.
Reid decided to retire after the much-publicized injury with an exercise band that’s left him permanently blind in his right eye. And Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Reid’s likely successor in the Senate Democratic leadership, may not have to contend with much back-seat driving from Reid.
“Hey, listen, I’ll miss my involvement in things, but I’m not going to be trying to run the Senate from afar. I’m not going to try to be somebody that can’t stop what had to be stopped, and that was me running the Senate,” Reid said.