For a sense of the depth of political trouble Harry Reid faces back home—the latest poll shows more than half of Nevadans have an “unfavorable” view of him—you need only read the accounts of Democrats on the Las Vegas City Council discussing the ethics of buying off senators to support Obamacare.
“To me, that’s completely illegal,” fumed Councilman Gary Reese. “Senators are giving other senators large amounts of money for their votes.”
“Can they do that?” he asked rhetorically.
“They’ve done it,” declared popular mayor Oscar Goodman.
Of course the Senate majority leader doing the vote buying is none other than their own Harry Reid. Among the schemes these Las Vegas leaders found so outrageous: More than $300 million in new Medicaid funds for Senator Mary Landrieu in what is being called the “Louisiana Purchase”; another $100 million in extra Medicaid and tax breaks for Nebraska (the “Cornhusker Kickback”) to get the vote of Senator Ben Nelson.
This is the same Harry Reid who once defended his support of home state pork barrel spending by saying, “Would they rather that money go to New Orleans?” The problem for Reid is that since he began handing out favors to buy support for Obama-care, Nevadans have noted that their money is going more and more to New Orleans—and Omaha and Little Rock. When Republican senator Paul Laxalt left office in 1987, Nevada got back 98 cents for every dollar Nevadans paid to the federal Treasury. Now the state receives 65 cents—leading some to question the value of having, what Reid’s TV ads are calling, “the most powerful senator in the history of Nevada.”
Harry Reid has spent virtually all of the last 40 years on a government payroll. He was elected to the state assembly at age 28. Two years later in 1970 he was elected lieutenant governor. He later served (in terms of politics one might say survived) five years as chairman of the Nevada Gambling Commission in a time when the mob was involved in that industry. (Washington’s best-known Nevada Republican, former GOP national chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, is actively working for Reid’s reelection. Fahrenkopf is the top lobbyist for gambling interests. That’s Nevada politics for you.)
In Reid’s early years in Congress he was known as something of a moderate. He was described by the 1988 Almanac of American Politics as “somewhat conservative, especially on cultural issues” and voted for the first Gulf war. As he rose through the ranks of Senate Democrats, moderation disappeared from his playbook. He was an architect of the strategy blocking Bush judicial nominees. In 2007 he became a symbol of the destructiveness of antiwar Democrats when he declared the Iraq war to be “lost.” Weeks later the Bush surge strategy made Reid’s remarks obsolete.
But it has been his role as point man for President Obama’s spending and health care plans that have left Reid a marked man in the 2010 campaign.
There are no fewer than 11 Republicans running for the GOP nomination to oppose Reid. Pro-Reid TV ads have been up for months, both from his campaign and from union-funded special interests. Even so, three of the Republicans, who have yet to do any television, are substantially ahead of Reid in the most recent Mason-Dixon poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Former assembly member Sharron Angle has a five-point lead. She is a favorite of hard core conservatives though she lost her two most recent Republican primaries (for Congress in ’06 and state senate in ’08). She also has been damaged by links to the Church of Scientology. Running eight points ahead of Reid is Danny Tarkanian, son of the legendary (and infamous) UNLV basketball coach Jerry “the Shark” Tarkanian. Danny is a lawyer and businessman, but name identification accounts for much of his standing. As a Las Vegas political scientist noted, “If his name were Danny Smith he would not register in the polls.”
Danny is well liked—he was the point guard on his father’s first UNLV team to be ranked number one in the nation—but the name is also a negative. Under constant NCAA investigation for alleged rules infractions, the Shark was finally pushed out as the UNLV coach although he later would win a $2.5 million settlement in a lawsuit against the NCAA.
Then there is Sue Lowden, who is running ten points ahead of Reid and increasingly is becoming the face of the opposition to him. An accomplished Republican leader in the Nevada state senate, Lowden is well into her 50s, but anyone who sees her is unsurprised to learn she was once second runner-up in the Miss America pageant.
Her story is straight out of the American dream. Her grandparents arrived at Ellis Island from Lithuania early in the last century and made their way to Johnstown, Pa., where her grandfather got a job in the coal mines. He would work his way up to shipbuilding in Camden.
That’s where Suzanne Pluskoski grew up, the product of Roman Catholic schooling and a single-mother who worked but did not have health insurance. Suzanne waitressed in her teens before making her way to Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross in Washington, D.C. She later graduated (magna cum laude) from American University.
How did she finance her education? With scholarships from winning beauty pageants. She won Miss D.C. in the Miss USA contest. Then she won Miss New Jersey, which took her all the way to third place in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.
It was during this period of fame that she was selected to join the Bob Hope 1971 Christmas Tour of Vietnam—which would be a life-changing experience, and not only because she became a Hope favorite. (He made her one of the show’s stars and strongly suggested she change her name—to Sue Plummer.)
She was fascinated by the work of television journalists following the tour, and that interest would land her an unpaid internship with a small TV station in Los Angeles. Her work there led to a job as a TV reporter and soon thereafter to celebrity as Nevada’s first woman news anchor.
Sue was a television natural—the Las Vegas Sun called her “one of the most professional news anchors in the nation”—and she had numerous opportunities to move to network jobs back East, but by then she was married (to Paul Lowden, a respected hotel/casino entrepreneur). She eventually left the demanding life of television for her four children and husband and the family business.
In 1991 the Nevada legislature passed the largest tax increase in the state’s history. The state senator in Sue Lowden’s district was the Democratic majority leader who had pushed for tax (and spending) increases. The next year she challenged him in an overwhelmingly Democratic district and won.
In the Nevada senate she was not afraid to challenge the status quo. She once was one of the few votes against a bloated pork spending bill. She called a committee majority “cowardly” for failing to pass a parental notification abortion bill. But she also was effective. She helped pass a workers compensation reform bill as well as a business flat tax reform measure. She became the Republican whip and chairman of the Senate taxation committee, where she blocked efforts for tax increases by simply not calling the committee into session.
In this period Paul Lowden suffered heated conflicts with the culinary union at his hotel. She was targeted by unions for defeat in 1996 and lost.
Lowden threw herself into a host of charitable causes, from the Muscular Dystrophy Association to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation to the Salvation Army to organizations helping severely challenged children. She also experienced the tragic death of one of her sons.
In 2007 she returned to politics as the state Republican chairman. There she earned the enmity of Ron Paul supporters by closing down a state convention rather than see Paul backers gain nominations to the 2008 GOP national convention. One of the reasons Lowden’s backers believe she will be tough enough to face the coming Harry Reid onslaught is she has proven politically fearless.
Even as Lowden has become the media favorite—she has appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio and television shows—to win the GOP nomination in the June primary, yet another candidate has emerged with potential. He is John Chachas, a wealthy New York investment banker and former Paul Laxalt intern who has thrown himself and a million dollars of his own money into the race.
Chachas grew up in rural Nevada but has lived in the East since and has yet to move his wife and children back to the Silver State. He has another problem that in other places would be a campaign stopper. In 2007 he maxed out to candidate Barack Obama, which he tries to explain away by saying he did so to get his Obama friends to give to his candidate, Mitt Romney.
Of course, early in Harry Reid’s career Sue and Paul Lowden contributed to his campaigns, but they argue that was a different time—and a different Harry Reid.
As if Reid didn’t have enough problems, his eldest son Rory is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination for governor. This means there will be two Reids on the Nevada ballot this fall. This appearance of a budding dynasty is not good news for either one. As one Republican quipped to the Washington Post, “Two Reids don’t make a right.”
It’s an open question whether both Reids will still be on the ballot come November. The revelation last week that Harry Reid had sat down with a couple of reporters (authors of the new book Game Change) to discuss the political advantages that accrued to Barack Obama from being a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect” increased talk among Democrats that he should step aside for a fresh face with a better chance to hold the seat. But with $12 million in the bank, Reid insists he’s in it to the end. A bitter end, probably.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest.