By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:04 PM
LAS VEGAS - Maybe it shouldn't have been such a shock Tuesday night that one of the brightest spots for Democrats across an otherwise bleak national landscape was here in Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid prevailed despite a devastated state economy and deeper personal unpopularity than many who lost elsewhere.
Maybe it's true that a stronger opponent than tea party favorite Sharron Angle could have dispatched Reid with ease - but maybe it's also true that no other Democrat could have beaten Angle. And maybe it's true that the closeness of the race since the very start was an emblem of Reid's vulnerability - but maybe, in this year, it was an emblem of his staying power.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) summed it up nicely, if bizarrely, when he congratulated Reid late Tuesday by calling him Dracula and Lazarus - the monster and the survivor. Maybe Reid, who didn't just squeak past Angle on Tuesday but defeated her decisively with a five-percentage-point margin, is actually a much stronger Democrat than lots of people gave him credit for.
"My story and this night prove that 'difficult' isn't synonymous with 'impossible,' " Reid told supporters in a Las Vegas ballroom after he was declared the winner late Tuesday. "And we're proof that the test is tough only if you're not tough. My career and this campaign have been driven by a simple belief: If a poor kid from Searchlight can make it, anybody can make it."
Reid, 70, has never been a hugely popular politician in Nevada; he won reelection in 1998, against Republican John Ensign, by just 428 votes. He is not naturally ebullient. He speaks haltingly to crowds, and his plain-spokenness makes him gaffe-prone, as when he famously described President Obama as a "light-skinned" black man with "no Negro dialect."
Add to that Reid's role ushering Obama's ambitious agenda through the Senate over the past two years - and his visibility as a state and national leader during a crushing recession. Nevada suffers the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation. As voters here grew increasingly anxious about the country's direction, their anger turned easily to a four-term incumbent who was presiding over it. This year, Reid's approval rating among Nevadans dropped below 50 percent.
What those approval ratings didn't capture, however, was Reid's masterful campaign. It began all the way back in the spring, when Reid had a hand in Angle's victory in the Republican primary over a wide field of opponents that included Sue Lowden, a well-funded and well-spoken casino executive. Reid viewed Lowden, a former state senator with strong support among Nevada business leaders, as the biggest threat - and so he helped defeat her by running ads that attacked her for a series of awkward statements she made about bartering chickens for health care.
With Angle's victory, Reid wasted no time telling Nevadans what he wanted them to know about her. While the deeply conservative former state assemblywoman spent a month behind the scenes raising money and building a general-election campaign, Reid, with help from an eight-figure war chest, inundated the airwaves with advertisements showcasing Angle's support for abolishing Social Security, Medicare and the departments of energy and education.
Using the label "wacky" to describe Angle, Reid's formidable research operation also found enough direct material to make the case and pummeled her with it: an interview in which she suggested that rape victims who become pregnant make lemonade from a "lemon situation" by carrying their babies to term; a remark to a class of Latino students that "I don't know that all of you are Latino. Some of you look a little more Asian to me."
There were behind-the-scenes maneuvers that added up, too. There was a massive push over the summer to register as many as 15,000 Latino voters. There was such a formidable get-out-the-vote operation that by Election Day fully 1,400 field workers were working off a painstakingly compiled list of voters built over the course of the year to knock, call, cajole and even drive to the polls just about every possible Reid vote.
And there was the compilation of a list of dozens of state business leaders and prominent Republicans who pledged their support for Reid after he convincingly made the case for his value to Nevada - in bringing federal dollars to the state, in negotiating crucial federal water policies, in blocking unpopular plans for a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from the Las Vegas Strip.
"We knew the state needed him now more than ever," said Sig Rogich, a Republican media consultant who worked for former presidents Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush. "We are at a critical time in Nevada. We are going through things that are historical in proportion to what it might do to our state."
Would it have been harder with a different opponent? Rogich insisted that many of the Republicans signed up before Angle won her primary. But Angle certainly didn't hurt.
"People in Nevada asked themselves: Is this smart? Is it smart to kick out the majority leader, arguably the most powerful man in Congress, and leave ourselves someone like her?"
No, Rogich added - it wouldn't have been smart, and so they voted for Harry Reid.