There was a time when an endorsement from Sen. Harry Reid would end debate among Democrats seeking office in Nevada.
Reid, notorious for meddling in races from president of the United States all the way down the ballot, could open doors or close them with a single nod. Those who earned his blessing got fundraising and organizing help; those who defied him usually lived to regret it.
But those days are over now.
Reid is a lame duck, having announced he’ll retire from the Senate when his current term expires next year. The political machine he built in Nevada faces an uncertain future after its animating principal departs. And the larger question — who will head the Democratic Party once Reid is gone — remains unanswered.
So it should come as no surprise that after Reid’s telegraphed, anti-climactic endorsement of state Sen. Ruben Kihuen in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District race was officially announced Thursday, the status quo remained intact. The seat, which includes Nye County, is held by freshman U.S. Rep. Cresent Hardy.
The other Democrats in the race — former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera and community activist Susie Lee — all said their campaigns would continue apace. None were surprised. And, tellingly, none admitted to second thoughts.
It wasn’t always thus: Former state Sen. Dina Titus took a real political risk in 2006, when she defied Reid and others in the Democratic establishment to run for governor against ex-Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson. Titus defied Reid again in 2012, when the senator tried to install Kihuen in the 1st Congressional District. Kihuen dropped out of that race, which Titus won handily.
But she’s the exception, not the rule. When Byron Georgiou tried to run for U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary against Reid’s wishes in 2012, he went from a Reid ally to public enemy No. 1 overnight. Georgiou ultimately dropped out. The eventual winner of the Democratic nomination, former Rep. Shelley Berkley, who’d waited patiently for Reid’s belated backing, ultimately went on to lose a close race to Republican Sen. Dean Heller in the general election.
Reid has helped raise huge sums for the state Democratic Party, built a political machine second to none and won Nevada a spot in the early caucus calendar. The party wouldn’t be what it is without him. But Reid’s penchant for anointments and his iron-fisted style have created critics along the way.
And that’s only increased in recent years. The close 2012 Senate loss can’t be laid entirely at Reid’s feet. But his promises to locate a quality challenger for the governor’s race in 2014 produced no one. (State Sen. Tick Segerblom volunteered to mount a progressive challenge to GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, but Reid brushed him off.) Instead, a former official from the administration of Gov. Mike O’Callaghan became the nominee (after literally losing to “none of these candidates” in the primary). Sandoval won re-election easily.
Now Reid faces a repeat scenario, having thus far been unable to recruit a 2016 candidate for the 3rd Congressional District. (The numbers don’t favor Democrats there.)
It would be a hollow complaint — Reid can’t find candidates to run in races Democrats will likely never win — if only the senator hadn’t made it his job to play kingmaker for decades.
The consensus among observers is that Reid’s endorsement is characteristically strategic: He wants former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto to succeed him in the Senate, and Hispanic turnout is key to that goal. Kihuen’s candidacy will presumably boost Latino participation.
Surely, Reid’s longtime affection for and support of Kihuen is a factor, too. And Reid’s nod will certainly help Kihuen in the money race. But if anyone thought Reid’s endorsement would clear the 4th District field or persuade one of the candidates to jump into the 3rd District race, they would be mistaken.
Things are starting to change in Nevada politics.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist.