Democrats are questioning whether they’re missing former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), as Nevada now looms as Republicans’ best chance of picking off a Senate Democratic incumbent amid stumbles by GOP candidates in Arizona and Georgia.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) entered the 2022 election cycle as a strongly positioned incumbent who was viewed as holding a safer seat than several of her colleagues, including Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).
Less than two months from Election Day, however, Senate Republicans now view Cortez Masto as their most promising target, raising questions about how much Democrats’ strength has slipped in Nevada since Reid’s retirement and death.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) on Monday pointed to Ohio and North Carolina as other states where Democratic candidates are exceeding expectations, but he admitted that “Nevada is a tough state for us.”
“And Catherine will tell you the same,” he added, referring to Cortez Masto. “It’s been up or down 1 or 2 points for a long time.”
Asked if Democrats are missing Reid, Durbin exclaimed, “I miss him every day.”
He also said that “of course” Democrats miss Reid’s political muscle in Nevada, acknowledging, “There’s no replacement for Harry. He was Mr. Nevada, and he knew how to make it work.”
Even so, Durbin insisted that “Catherine’s the best” and predicted that “she’ll do very well.”
But polls show that if Cortez Masto hangs on to win reelection, it will be by the slimmest of margins.
An AARP-commissioned poll conducted last month showed Cortez Masto leading her Republican opponent, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, by less than 4 points, within the survey’s margin of error.
Another poll conducted last month by the Republican Trafalgar Group showed Laxalt leading by nearly 3 points.
The tight polling numbers are all the more concerning for Democrats because Cortez Masto has received significantly more support from outside groups than Laxalt.
Outside groups have spent $7.9 million in support of Cortez Masto compared to $4 million in support of Laxalt and $13.9 million against Laxalt compared to $8.5 million against Cortez Masto, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan research group.
Laxalt’s resilience in the polls also comes despite vulnerabilities as a candidate.
Like other Trump-backed candidates who won Senate primaries this year, Laxalt embraced former President Trump’s false allegation that the 2020 election was stolen because of voter fraud. He has also claimed that ballots for ineligible and dead voters were fraudulently counted for President Biden in Nevada.
Jon Ralston, the CEO of The Nevada Independent and the most respected political commentator in the state, said, “Harry Reid’s acolytes are still around and are still running the machine, so to speak.”
Ralston said Cortez Masto has proved to be a “formidable fundraiser.”
Her campaign reported raising more than $7.5 million in the second quarter of this year after raising $4.4 million in the first quarter, giving her campaign $10 million in cash on hand to start July.
But Ralston added that “if you don’t have Harry Reid … you can’t raise as much money, and so you are handicapped to some extent.”
Ralston said Reid and his political machine were “huge” factors behind Cortez Masto’s victory in 2016, an otherwise a disappointing election cycle for Democrats. She won the seat that Reid held from 1987 to 2017.
He also argued that she ran against “a much better candidate” in former Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) than she is facing now.
“Adam Laxalt, who I’ve told virtually anyone who will listen, is an absolutely terrible candidate,” Ralston said, citing his embrace of Trump’s election fraud claims and ethical issues related to his term as state attorney general.
Yet National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.) on Monday pointed to Nevada and Georgia as the two most promising pickup opportunities for Republicans, pointing to the low approval ratings of Biden and the Senate Democratic incumbents.
“If you look at the polls, it would suggest [in] those two states we have every opportunity,” he said. “Biden’s numbers in all of our swing states are under 40 [percent] … and all the Democratic candidates are under 50 [percent]. It’s rightful to tie every one of those candidates to Biden.”
Ralston said it’s somewhat easier to tie Cortez Masto to Biden, whose approval rating in Nevada stood at 41 percent last month, because she doesn’t have as strong a brand as some other politicians.
“[Because] she’s much more of a work horse than a show horse, it’s easier to define her as a just a Biden clone,” he said. “I think that definitely has hurt her.”
Democrats familiar with Reid’s famed political machine say it’s still a force to be reckoned with and will churn out large numbers of voters for Cortez Masto. But Democratic strategists also acknowledge there’s been a major void in Nevada’s Democratic power structure since Reid died in December at the age of 82.
Kami Dempsey-Goudie, a Nevada-based political consultant who mainly works with Democrats but has worked with Republicans as well, said Democrats miss Reid but are still benefiting from the political operation he built over the decades.
“I think they miss him a lot, but I think they also feel a lot of his presence here. A lot of his original staff and what they call the Reid machine is functioning and working aggressively,” she said, noting that former Reid staffers are still involved in state political races.
She cited Rebecca Lambe, who worked closely with Reid to rebuild the state party after 2002, and Megan Jones, a longtime Reid aide who recently joined Vice President Harris’s staff, as two key political players active in the state.
But she said the machine doesn’t run quite as efficiently without Reid.
“I think he’s missed in a way where one phone call from him to certain people got a job [advanced] further down the road in a quicker time frame, so that’s really missed by Democrats,” said Dempsey-Goudie.
Democrats don’t have as big a lead over Republicans in voter registration as they have in past election cycles, which will make Laxalt more competitive, Democrats acknowledge.
Mike Lux, a longtime Democratic strategist, hailed Reid as a political mastermind.
“Nevada’s always been a close state,” he said, noting that Reid won reelection in 1998 by fewer than 500 votes. “A number of Harry’s elections were quite close so this is a swing state. … It’s been a swing state for about 20 years.
“If Harry were still around, it would make it easier to win because he was a brilliant political strategist and he was a great leader and he brought people together. Obviously he is sorely missed so that makes it tougher,” he said.
When asked about Reid’s missing influence on the Nevada race, Cortez Masto told The Hill that voters would make up their own minds about who to support.
“Nevadans are always going to decide their races, no matter what,” she said, adding that Nevada is “independent, strong” and that “ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s the voters who decide who they’re going to elect.”
Asked whether the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote operation remains as strong as it used to be now that Reid is gone, Cortez Masto replied, “Absolutely. Yup. Absolutely.”