WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is at it again.
Known for meddling in politics at all levels in his home state of Nevada, the Democrat intervened earlier this week to help kill a GOP-backed bill in the Legislature that would have allowed Nevada to trade its presidential caucuses for primaries, seen as friendlier to establishment candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who might be tougher for Democrats to beat.
The surprise outcome exasperated Republicans from Las Vegas to Washington and served notice that even as Reid heads into retirement, Republicans will have to get around him if they hope to win Nevada in 2016. And it was just the latest move from a masterful tactician who rules his home state’s political scene like no other and is determined to keep the White House and his own Senate seat in Democratic hands though his name will never again be on the ballot.
“Harry’s an icon, there hasn’t been anybody in politics like him. Whether you like his politics or not he’s carved out a spot that quite frankly is unique in the history of Nevada politics,” said Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, a former state party chairman. “He’s a results-oriented guy, and until we really hug ‘what are they doing, and how do we compete with that’ there’ll continue to be days where we struggle.”
For Reid working against the primary bill was just one of his recent moves designed to boost Democratic prospects in Nevada.
Some of his top lieutenants run the state Democratic Party and will be instrumental in working for presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The former secretary of state and first lady surrounded herself with some of Reid’s allies in the immigrant community when she visited the state last month, and she plans another appearance in a couple of weeks.
Reid also has been keeping attention focused on Yucca Mountain, a federal nuclear waste dump planned for 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas that’s been largely mothballed at Reid’s insistence. “Republican presidential candidates must really think Nevada voters are daft,” Reid said to supporters last week in an email that criticized Rubio for supporting the dump and questioned Bush’s stated opposition.
And he’s working to help a hand-picked successor, former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, replace him in the Senate, though he denied any role in talking Democratic Rep. Dina Titus out of the race.
“She made the decision on her own. I don’t get involved in stuff like that,” Reid said.
Reid himself was instrumental in pushing for the Nevada caucus system in the first place, in 2008, which gave Nevada early state presidential voting status with nominating contests held in January, third only to Iowa and New Hampshire.
That brought unprecedented attention to the small state during the primary fight between Barack Obama and Clinton, registering tens of thousands of new Democratic voters who would help Democrats win in 2008 and 2012 — and, not coincidentally, help Reid himself to re-election in 2010 when he was being written off as politically dead.
At the same time the caucuses proved an embarrassment for the GOP. The 2008 GOP convention was prematurely shut down as activists clashed, while in 2012 the turnout was an anemic 8 percent.
With a wide-open primary field and the chance to reclaim the White House in 2016, Republicans saw an opportunity for Nevada to play an important role.
Holding primaries would boost participation — since voters would only have to show up to the polls, not attend hours-long meetings — and would require less expense and organizing from candidates.
Establishment Republicans also saw a benefit for candidates like Bush, since caucuses tend to be dominated by conservative party activists who might gravitate toward a figure like libertarian-minded Rand Paul. Kentucky’s junior senator already has a network of supporters in the state thanks to candidacies by his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Legislation to make the change was widely supported by the GOP heading into the legislative session that ended earlier this week, but Reid made a call to a Democratic supporter in the Assembly, Harvey Munford, who promptly had a change of heart. The session ended with no vote on the bill.
“Basically, he spelled it out to me,” Munford said later, adding that Reid had warned of the possibility that Nevada could lose its early state role, which was predicated on holding caucuses.
Nevada’s junior senator, Republican Dean Heller, said Reid was “obviously ... doing what’s in his best interest, and I was doing what was in my best interest and I was disappointed to see the result.”
“Ron Paul did well in the state with a caucus last couple of cycles, and I think that his son will do well also,” Heller added.
Reid himself shrugged off a question about whether his move could end up pushing Republicans to nominate a more right-wing candidate.
“I didn’t know they had anybody else running. So who else would they nominate?” Reid said.