How Harry Reid Beat Sharron Angle

Reid spent six years turning the marginally red Nevada solidly blue.


There are few people who cover Nevada politics as well as the Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston. He’s plugged in to just about everyone, so if anyone has the “inside dope” it’s him.

In a piece published Sunday, Ralston explains in some detail that Harry Reid’s recent re-election was the result of a well-planned and, more importantly, well-executed strategy that began years before Reid had to face the voters.

“Reid knew he would be targeted the moment he took over for Tom Daschle after the 2004 election,” Ralston writes. “He couldn’t have foretold just how high his negatives would go or just how low the economy would sink. But the goal was to be prepared--for anything.”

[See editorial cartoons on the economy.]

This meant Reid had six years to change the dynamics of his race, and he put them to good use turning Nevada, as Ralston puts it, from a “slightly red state into a solidly blue one.”

There were a number of independent dynamics also at play, like the scandals that seemed to follow GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons wherever he went. But Reid also went to work making sure the Democratic electorate was energized and ready. Step one was to move the state’s presidential caucus up early on the 2008 calendar.

According to Ralston’s analysis, Reid’s political team had as a goal turning out 100,000 voters. They exceeded it by nearly 20 percent, bringing 117,000 Democrats out to participate in the Obama-Clinton contest, which no doubt provided lots of new names of new voters with whom Reid and his team could be in regular contact.

Step two was to eliminate the opposition, at least the ones who were potentially strong enough to be a serious threat to Reid’s re-election. This included popular GOP Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who was sidelined by an indictment on four felony counts--which he was ultimately exonerated for when a Las Vegas judge dismissed the charges--having to do with his conduct as state treasurer.

Though it was never proven, some Nevada Republicans still believe Reid had something to with having the charges brought.

[See a slide show of winners and losers from the 2010 elections.]

Other potential opponents were dispatched by beating them in the 2008 election. These included state Sen. Joe Heck--who lost his seat in the legislature but is now the congressman-elect from Nevada’s Third Congressional District. It also included Rep. Jon Porter, who had been the congressman in the Third District until he was beaten in 2008 by Dina Titus, a Reid ally who had been the Democratic Leader in the State Senate.

Convincing Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada’s Second Congressional District to take a pass on the race was simply, Ralston says, a matter of persuading him the race would be too expensive. This became even easier when Nevada’s other U.S. senator, Republican John Ensign, became embroiled in a personal scandal that makes it unlikely he will run for re-election the next time he’s up--if he even serves out his current term. If he resigns, Heller is one of the obvious choices to replace him. [See where Ensign gets his campaign money.]

“The campaign began to prepare at the beginning of 2010 to face Sue Lowden, the deep-pocketed, telegenic former anchorwoman and state senator. ‘She was the person,’ as one insider put it via E-mail,” says Ralston, “‘we were least interested in facing so we set out to make sure that she either 1) came out of the primary bruised and battered or 2) didn’t come out of the primary at all so we would face Sharron Angle or Danny Tarkanian.’” Meaning Reid’s political team could spend its time working to help the GOP pick its nominee.

[See editorial cartoons on the Republicans.]

They ran ads attacking Lowden, who led for much of the cycle but was unable to overcome a last-minute barrage of negative attacks from Angle, led or backed at least in part by a group called The Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth, who rallied conservatives at the last minute to come out for the “purest” candidate in the race.

With the three Republicans doing all they could to beat each others’ brains out, Reid was free to sit back, watch, and tend to business--making sure enough Democrats were identified and turned out to give him another term in the U.S. Senate.

Angle won the primary but it may have already been all over by then. “In the end, Team Angle didn’t know what hit it,” Ralston writes. “They thought they were crushing Reid among independents. They thought they had the race won, as one insider informed me after I predicted Reid would win the Sunday before the balloting. They believed the public polls that drove the ‘Angle will win’ narrative; they believed their own surveys.”

“One discrepancy that really jumps out,” pollster Scott Rasmussen said Monday, “are the results among unaffiliated voters.”

“The Rasmussen Reports numbers showed Angle winning these voters by more than 20 percentage points. The exit polls showed her with just a four-point advantage. This strikes us as an especially significant clue because the Angle poll numbers in Nevada were not out of step with the preference of unaffiliated voters for Republicans around the country,” he said.

[See editorial cartoons about the 2010 elections.]

Reid’s victory, while not especially convincing, was enough to make it clear his plan worked as he and his political team expected it would. In part it’s because the Republicans couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They wanted his scalp so badly they refused to see what was really going on--even as they managed to hang on to the governorship with newly-elected GOPer Brian Sandoval by a convincing margin. It may be they convinced themselves that Reid was just low-hanging fruit, too attractive to ignore or that the idea that, as a national party leader, Reid was way out of step with what we think of as generally-conservative Nevada. It’s something for them to think about, especially when looking at many of the resources that went to Nevada that might have made a difference in states like Colorado or Washington, where the final margins were much closer.

It’s an issue that’s going to be argued at least for the next few weeks, if not months. It may be a healthy exercise. Then again, there aren’t too many generals who can brag that they won the next war by refighting the last one.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.
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