RENO, Nev.—It used to be that if you needed to get a divorce, you came here. Harry Reid came to Reno to stop one. Nevada voters want a split from the Senate majority leader, and he has less than a month to persuade them otherwise. So he stood in a campaign office Wednesday sounding a lot like the guy who finds himself on the doorstep, his clothes piled on the front lawn: Baby, remember all the good things I've done for you.
Reid spoke at a press conference with local officials—some of them Republicans—who testified to all that he had done for the northern part of the state. He brought home federal money for watershed protection, new airport runways, an air-traffic control tower, methamphetamine abuse prevention programs, a shopping mall, and a local rail project. "The railroad only listens to the man upstairs because they own everything, but they listened to Senator Reid," said Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, a Republican. No Reid effort was too small to mention. Sparks City Councilwoman Julia Ratti's list included the help Reid gave in getting her city six additional police officers. "They're there because of Harry Reid."
Six jobs might lead to six votes—and that might make the difference in this close race. Polls show the race tied between Reid, the biggest target on the GOP hit list, and his Tea Party-backed opponent, Republican Sharron Angle. Polls also show that Reid is unpopular. According to an average of polls, his disapproval rating in the state is 52 percent whereas his approval rating is just 42 percent.
When asked why he hadn't been campaigning more, Reid said: "I've been running the country." Maybe so, but from the press conference it also sounded like he was helping to run Reno, too—which is in the key swing county in the state. Reid talked about how he fought to keep garbage from California from being dumped in the area and praised the football coach of a local school. It sounded like he was running for lieutenant governor again.
Reid, who is soft-spoken and slightly stooped, seems more like a church usher than the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate. Only his shoulder grab of the Reno mayor gave any hint that he was a member of the political class. His demeanor made it hard to tell whether he was being aggressive or defensive when he justified the millions he'd brought to Nevada by holding up a copy of the Constitution he carries with him every day. "It is part of my constitutional duties to do congressionally directed spending," he said, holding the maroon volume given to him and signed by former Sen. Robert Byrd. "I am vigorous in going forward with congressionally directed spending and I fight for it." (The bumper sticker version of this is, "No One Can Do More.")
Like all Democratic politicians, Reid is trying to balance all his talk about all he has done with a steady insistence that it isn't enough. Nevada's unemployment rate is 14.4 percent, the highest in the country. For three years, it produced the most home foreclosures. Reid demonstrates his empathy by talking about his humble upbringing in the tiny mining town of Searchlight. His father worked for a man whose checks bounced, while his mother took in laundry from some of the 13 local brothels to make extra money.
Extending his sense of empathy into perhaps dangerous territory, he tells a local newspaper how his mother struggled to afford Christmas presents. He says the experience helps him understand why people might blame him for their economic plight. "I wanted to get some presents on Christmas morning," he told reporters and editors at the Reno Gazette-Journal. "I was a very selfish little boy, and I was upset that my mother had to go through all this. Whose fault is this? And that's what people are going through. I didn't know who to blame but I wanted to blame somebody."
Reid's pitch echoed his effort a few months ago to reintroduce himself to Nevada voters. It didn't work, and since then his strategy has been to make Angle so toxic that while voters might be angry, they don't dare embrace a candidate who wants to dismantle Social Security and the federal Department of Education. In one ad Reid simply replays some of Angle's more controversial comments to portray her as beyond the pale.
Reid's strategy worked initially in damaging Angle's reputation. But as the campaign wears on, the effect is diminishing. Angle, in turn, has been hitting Reid hard on the issue of immigration. "Harry Reid, the best friend an illegal alien ever had," says a new ad. (Both campaigns have been slapped for misleading ads.)
For candidates in other states, Angle is the personification of the dangerous Tea Party takeover of Washington. She gave her opponents new ammunition when she was captured recently on tape boasting that she and other Tea Party candidates would be able to shake things up because they would have special sway with Jim DeMint, the Tea Party's favorite senator, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. "We've got the power of a political machinery that we've never seen the likes of. That really gives me some juice. … I go to Washington, D.C., now and I say 'I want to see Jim DeMint.' He's right there for me. … I want to see Mitch McConnell, he's there."
Reid, by contrast, doesn't appear to be interested in shaking anything up. Though both the left and the right see the Senate as a broken institution, Reid does not. "It's coming back," he told me, referring to the Senate. "Mitch McConnell and I developed in the last six months—I know this is hard for people to comprehend—I think we've finally developed a relationship after all these years and I think things are getting better." But how can he say that, I asked, when senators like DeMint are funding advertisements attacking him?
Reid, characteristically, didn't find that outrageous. He said it didn't run afoul of the Senate's unwritten rules against attacking other senators, as some have claimed. "Jim DeMint I know quite well," he said. "Disagree with him but I like him. We talk all the time." He stopped short of saying whether that gives him some juice.