Jan. 16, 2010 -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been fighting to keep his leadership post this week after his impolitic remarks about President Obama and race. Back in Nevada, that controversy is among the least of his worries.
Facing re-election to a fifth term this year, polls show his home-state popularity sagging and his signature political issue, health care, bringing him little benefit among voters. Democrats fear a repeat of 2004, when Reid's predecessor as Senate leader, Tom Daschle, was tossed from office by voters.
"I think he's gone," says Patty Pennise, 46, an unemployed hotel worker and independent voter. "There's a mentality out there, 'Throw them all out.' "
The reasons for that anti-incumbent sentiment: The state's tourism-dependent economy remains down, unemployment is up, and home foreclosures are among the highest in the nation.
Republicans are lining up to run against Reid, and the senator is under attack in TV ads run by a conservative Tea Party Express group. State Republican Party Chairman Chris Comfort says there could be as many as 10 or 12 candidates entering the June primary for the chance to face Reid in November.
"He's definitely in big trouble," says Sal Russo, the Sacramento political strategist for Our Country Deserves Better, a conservative committee raising money to air the Tea Party Express ads.
A Mason-Dixon survey of 625 Nevada voters last week for the Las Vegas Review-Journal found 52% view Reid unfavorably. The survey showed Reid trailing three potential GOP opponents, including former University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball player Danny Tarkanian.
A Rasmussen Reports poll shows Reid dragged down by the health care bill he is trying to get to Obama's desk. It found 54% of Nevada voters oppose the bill.
The outlook is so grim that even before a clear GOP opponent has emerged, national political analyst Stuart Rothenberg this week revised his Senate election handicapping to count Reid's seat as leaning toward a GOP takeover. He calls Reid — who won with 61% in 2004 — a "slight underdog" for re-election.
Reid Is 'Slight Underdog'
"Ordinarily, a person with Reid's numbers ... is pretty much dead," says Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas political observer. But, he adds: "Harry Reid still has a chance to win. He's going to raise a fortune and will spend it almost entirely to define the Republican nominee."
Indeed, Reid has raised more money — $7.5 million — in the current two-year campaign cycle than any House or Senate candidate, according to CQ MoneyLine.
Reid has been gaffe-prone over the years: Republican ads recall he once called the Iraq war a failure and remarked that tourists who crowd the Capitol sometimes smell unpleasant. In a new book, Game Change, Reid is quoted as telling a reporter more than a year ago that Obama was helped among voters because he was "light skinned" and without a "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called Reid's remarks "ignorant" and urged him to resign. Democrats, including Obama, have rushed to defend Reid.
Lonnie Feemster, president of the NAACP's Reno chapter, said Reid has nothing to apologize for. "Sen. Reid was talking about the nuances of the majority white voter perceptions of a black candidate," he said. "I didn't take offense to them."
Keyaire Robinson, 23, a black single mom, says the Obama remarks are about all she knows about Reid — but she doesn't hold it against him and will vote for his re-election. She's more worried about jobs. "Most people I know are unemployed," she said.
Blacks make up less than 8% of Nevada's population, Feemster says. Still, anything that depresses black voter turnout can hurt Democratic candidates, and Reid's remarks have kept the focus on his problems.
A bigger problem for Reid may be that Republican critics have succeeded to a degree in depicting him as more aligned with liberal Democratic policies in Washington than home-state concerns.
"Reid's success in the past was people felt like he was looking out for Nevada," Russo says. "I think today the feeling is he's abandoned Nevada."
Reid Brushes Off Poll Numbers
Reid dismisses the polls. "We're doing fine," he says. "I feel comfortable where we are today."
Democratic strategist Billy Vassiliadis, whose public relations company crafted Las Vegas' signature "What happens here stays here" slogan, says Reid has suffered at home for leading the charge for his party in Washington, but there's plenty of time to recover. Reid's campaign will begin airing TV ads in about 45 days, he said.
"We feel a lot more confident than these polls indicate," he says.
Nevada Republicans have problems, too. They could see a bruising Senate primary in June, and none of their candidates is well-known. Besides Tarkanian, among the other GOP hopefuls are Sue Lowden, a former casino owner and former state party chairman, and Sharron Angle, a former state legislator.
"Ultimately, this will become ... a choice between the U.S. Senate majority leader, who is the most significant elected official this state has ever elected, vs." a Republican who is little known, Vassiliadis said.
It may all come down to how the economy fares this year.
"If the economy was wonderful," Vassiliadis added, "we probably wouldn't be having any polling problems."