Sen. Harry M. Reid building war chest by tapping donors beyond Nevada

By Carol D. Leonnig and T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Harry M. Reid needed money, and lots of it. Last spring, the Senate majority leader was looking ahead to a tough reelection fight. Polls showed that the voters back home in Nevada who sent him to Washington four times had tired of him. Republican Party fundraisers had all but declared him their No. 1 target for defeat. Taking them on would be expensive, and he wasn't drawing nearly enough cash from contributors inside Nevada. So Reid did what politicians in his position do: He picked up the phone.

The senator began dialing old and new friends across the country, asking for their help. Many had one thing in common: They had a financial stake in legislation that Reid, as the most powerful member of the Senate, helps control.

One of the calls Reid placed seeking cash was to trial lawyer John Morgan. At a party held at his home near Orlando in March, Morgan raised about $96,000 for Reid's reelection battle.

Trial lawyers have long given generously to Democrats, and to Reid. Morgan, whose firm Morgan and Morgan is preparing legal claims against BP on behalf of the gulf region's tourism industry and commercial fishermen, said he's helping Reid because the pro-consumer senator is under attack by "tea party" Republican Sharron Angle, and Morgan would "rather have one trial lawyer in Congress than 500 bureaucrats."

"Prospectively, of course, I'm looking for laws that I think are pro-consumer. Consumer rights is my issue -- that is my livelihood," he said.

Reid has raised $16.9 million for his 2010 campaign, $10 million of it in itemized contributions since 2009. Eighty percent of that $10 million came from out of state. (Angle has raised $1.3 million, with 70 percent of itemized contributions coming from out of state, records show.) Individual Nevadans have written $1.96 million in checks to Reid since 2009, compared with $221,000 to Angle.

Reid's position as majority leader may have helped. In 1998, before he had risen to the Senate leadership, 51 percent of Reid's contributions came from outside Nevada.

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Reid raises more money from outside his state than any other senator. Vermont's Patrick J. Leahy (D) edges out Reid in the percentage he raises from out of state with 86 percent, but Leahy's total contributions of $1.6 million are dwarfed by Reid's.

While congressional leaders often draw support beyond their home states, Reid's fundraising success underscores the power he has over which bills move through the Senate and the shape they take. Reid's leading donors include executives and partners of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison (a top New York law firm representing most of the major Wall Street investment houses now facing the landmark financial regulatory overhaul); a physician practice group based in California and Nevada whose use of foreign doctors Reid proposed investigating in 2007; and a Utah nuclear energy firm trying to block legislation that would curtail its efforts to import nuclear waste from other countries.

Reid's attractiveness to out-of-state donors could make him vulnerable to criticism that his years as a Washington powerbroker have left him out of touch with Nevadans, which is one of Angle's lines of attack. Last week, a political survey showed that 52 percent of Nevadans said they viewed Reid unfavorably and 45 percent viewed him "very unfavorably."

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaigns, said trial lawyers and other Democratic-leaning donors probably want to help Reid stay in power -- but other new outside interests may want something else from him.

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