Demographic Changes Leave Nevada Senator in Jeopardy
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 25, 1998; Page A19
LAS VEGASSen. Harry Reid (D), the marathon man of Nevada politics, is facing the reelection fight of his life in a state where Democrats have been hurled on the defensive by massive demographic changes and President Clinton's troubles.
Early this year, Reid held a double-digit lead over his challenger, Rep. John Ensign (R), a folksy conservative. But after seven months in which the two dueled with mostly negative television commercials, most of Reid's lead has vanished. A recent Democratic poll put Reid ahead by less than 5 points, while a Republican survey and polls by two casinos show an even narrower margin.
"With the prospect of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter dampening voter turnout, Reid has reason to be nervous about going into the election with such a small lead," said Las Vegas political analyst John Ralston.
Voter turnout was only 38 percent in the September primary, but Democrats are gambling that they can increase it in November. Reid's campaign manager Larry Warner said he expects a strong effort by organized labor, a potent force here, as well as a boost from a coordinated campaign that Reid is running with Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, the Democratic nominee for governor. Jones, an articulate campaigner who this year survived breast cancer, heads a state ticket that includes four women.
Jones trails GOP gubernatorial nominee Kenny Guinn in most polls but is within striking distance. The Democratic hope is that she will turn out women who will vote for Reid and that Jones in turn will benefit from Reid's superior organization outside Las Vegas.
Reid, who said in an interview he had accomplished more for Nevada than any senator in history, has worries besides turnout. While he has a substantive legislative record, he is largely unknown to many new residents, who have poured into Nevada at the rate of 125,000 a year since Reid won a second Senate term in 1992.
Most of the newcomers have settled in Clark County (Las Vegas) and know less about Reid than about Ensign, whose district includes Las Vegas and its close-in suburbs. Ensign, facing the voters for the third time in four years, upset a Democratic incumbent in the GOP breakthrough year of 1994 and won reelection in 1996.
Reid's two previous Senate victories were against candidates from elsewhere in the state. "Ensign coming from Clark County levels the playing field," said GOP consultant John Maddox. "He has won votes from Democrats who have never voted for Reid."
What has also helped level the field is the increased Republican coloration of Nevada. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly 40,000 in 1992; today, Republicans hold a 4,000-vote edge.
"Many newcomers are retirees who are basically conservative and others are non-skilled workers who aren't automatically a part of the Democratic base as they used to be," said Michael Bowers, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and author of a book on Nevada politics. Bowers added that the newcomers do not appreciate how much Reid's seniority benefits Nevada.
Long-term Nevadans value Reid, as shown by his strong showing in northern Nevada, where growth has been slower. Both sides agree that Reid leads Ensign in Reno and surrounding Washoe County, which usually votes Republican. But Mike Slanker, Ensign's campaign manager, predicted that Republicans in Reno would return to the GOP fold by November.
Reid, 58, a lawyer, grew up in the tiny Mojave Desert mining town of Searchlight and hitchhiked 40 miles to high school in the town of Henderson. There he came under the influence of Mike O'Callaghan, a civics teacher and coach of the boxing team on which Reid became a capable middleweight.
O'Callaghan became governor in 1970 and Reid was elected the state's youngest lieutenant governor at age 30. Reid lost a Senate race to Republican Paul Laxalt by 624 votes in 1974, lost a race for mayor of Las Vegas in 1976 and then was appointed head of the influential Gaming Commission by O'Callaghan. Reid won the first of two House terms in 1982 and was elected to the Senate in 1986 when Laxalt retired.
Over the years, Reid earned a reputation as a tenacious politician and effective legislator. Reid is credited for legislation that eliminated the "source tax," which allowed other states to tax the pensions of retirees who moved to Nevada. Reid won the plaudits of environmentalists for pushing the Nevada Wilderness Protection Act through the Senate over GOP opposition and for negotiating a difficult agreement persuading the Paiute Indians on Pyramid Lake to return their fisheries to the state in return for $65 million in payments and economic aid.
In congested southern Nevada, Reid has played a key role in the pork-barrel process of obtaining highway funds. He also jumped back into the nuclear waste issue, leading a successful fight that was backed by a veto threat from President Clinton against an attempt to make Nevada a temporary dump for nuclear waste. Challenges continue to the Yucca Mountain depository, which critics say poses environmental hazards.
Citing his efforts on this issue, Reid said, "You send Ensign to the Senate, you send nuclear waste to Nevada." Ensign, who also opposes using Nevada as a nuclear waste dump, scoffed at this. "Does Reid think that Dick Bryan [Nevada's other senator] is going to give up the fight?" he asked. "Bryan's a Democrat who works with Republicans, and I'm a Republican who works with Democrats."
Ensign, 40, a veterinarian and son of a casino owner, went to Congress as an anti-government firebrand supporting the House GOP's "Contract With America" but has shown a practical streak. In 1996 he helped persuade House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to separate welfare and Medicaid, with the result that Congress passed the far-reaching welfare bill signed into law by Clinton.
The candidates have tried to demonize each other: Reid portrays Ensign as an "extremist" who calls environmentalists "socialists" and wants to gut Social Security; Ensign describes Reid as a senator who favors tax cuts in Nevada and votes for higher taxes in Washington.
More damaging to Reid than any of Ensign's attacks has been the pall cast by Clinton's problems in a state where the president is less popular than he is nationally.
"The Clinton troubles have put a crimp in Reid's plan to run as a senior Democrat with close ties to the White House," said analyst Ralston. A close friend of Reid's, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the senator was frustrated by a situation out of his control "there are useful commercials with the president that will never be made because they can't be used."
Reid was one of the first senators to say he was disappointed by Clinton's public admission of an "inappropriate relationship" with Monica S. Lewinsky. He later called Clinton's conduct "immoral."
In the context of the current scandal, Reid's best commercial may be one used early this year with no thought of Clinton in mind. It shows Reid, the father of five and grandfather of six, with his wife Landra and their children clustered around the family barbecue.
The voice of Landra Reid is heard: "You can disagree on Harry Reid's greatest accomplishment. Some say that it is being born in a small wooden shack and rising above it to become a U.S. senator. Others talk about the laws he's passed. . . . But for me, Harry Reid's greatest accomplishment is being a devoted husband and father who helped raise five exceptional children. His being a senator is great, but having the love and respect of your family is the ultimate accomplishment."
It is a sign of the times that the Reid campaign will soon be running this commercial again.
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