LAS VEGAS — Down in the polls and written off by the pundits, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made one final pitch on Monday to save his job, telling a raucous crowd of 2,000 that he is far from finished in Washington.
“I have fought for Nevada my whole life, but you know, I’m not finished fighting,” he told supporters in a packed high school gymnasium on the city’s north side.
Reid’s speech was periodically interrupted by chants of “Harry, Harry, Harry,” which prompted a bemused smile from the Senate’s top Democrat. The crowd only grew louder after first lady Michelle Obama took the podium.
Dubbed “the closer” for her ability to win over wavering voters, this was Obama’s second campaign visit for Reid this cycle. She told the crowd Reid was instrumental in helping pass her husband’s agenda.
“This election isn’t just about all that we’ve accomplished these last couple years,” she said. “This election is about all that we have left to do.
“My husband can’t do this alone,” she added. “He needs leaders like Harry Reid.”
It was Reid’s only public event on the final day before the pivotal midterm election vote. His opponent, Republican Sharron Angle was in Reno, according to her campaign. She has been increasingly wary of the news media, which has had to rely on tips from the public in order to find her.
Angle’s most recent interview was with local television reporters who tried to corner her at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport. She answered several questions as she walked across the airport.
During a rally with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Las Vegas on Friday, Angle predicted that “there is going to be shock and awe in Washington” on Nov. 3.
The contest between Reid and Angle has been fought mostly over the airwaves. The candidates are on pace to spend some $45 million between them, much of it on TV and radio advertising. Nevada is a relatively cheap media market, which makes the campaigns’ expenditures amount to what one Democratic strategist called “carpet bombing.”
The field operations of the two campaigns will also play a vital role in an election that’s expected to be decided by a thin margin.
Democratic strategists said Reid has been laying the groundwork for his reelection bid ever since he took over the Senate leadership in 2004 after Sen. Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) defeat by Republican John Thune. Reid and Daschle were close, and Reid didn’t want to suffer a similar fate, strategists said.
After Reid was elevated to majority leader in 2007, he knew his race would be a national target for Republicans. He set an ambitious fundraising goal of $25 million for his campaign. And with an eye on 2010, Reid pushed for a change in the 2008 Democratic nominating contest calendar that moved the Nevada caucuses into January.
Moving Nevada to the third state on the presidential calendar forced the campaigns to organize there. Their lists of supporters — an invaluable resource — were eventually turned over to the Nevada Democratic Party and Reid’s campaign, giving his field program a significant edge.
The Nevada Republican Party, meanwhile, has been in disarray. Former chairman Chris Comfort left the party in March. And the establishment favorite to win the Senate nomination, former casino executive Sue Lowden (R), lost the primary to Angle after a series of missteps.
Still, the GOP has one huge advantage in the race — anger over the economy. Nevada’s unemployment rate in September was 14.4 percent, which was the highest in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state also has one of the highest rates of home foreclosure. Even the state’s gaming industry is suffering; for the first time in almost 30 years, there are no major casino projects planned for the Las Vegas strip, gaming executives say.
Reid successfully pushed extensions of unemployment benefits through the Senate, which won him some supporters.
“I’ve been unemployed for 19 months already,” said Martin Alvillar, a pipe fitter from Las Vegas who attended Monday’s rally. “But I understand what [the Democrats’] ideas are, so I’m patient — as long as I can afford it. People are blaming Harry Reid, but he doesn’t deserve the blame.”
The threat of losing a staunch and powerful ally has motivated Nevada unions to launch a more aggressive effort on his behalf.
“This time he’s the Senate majority leader. In the past, he wasn’t,” said Al Martinez, the president of the Service Employees International Union’s Nevada branch. “We can’t stand to lose the senator right now.”
The SEIU says some 18,000 members in the state are being mobilized in support of Reid.
While Reid’s influence in the Senate is a rallying point for his allies, it’s seen as inconsequential by some Nevadans. A common criticism of the senator among voters here is that he’s done little with his power to help the state’s economy.
Angle has even suggested he’s enriched himself during his time in Washington. “You came from Searchlight to the Senate with very little,” she during their only debate, on Oct. 14. “Now you’re one of the richest men in the U.S. Senate. On behalf of Nevada taxpayers, I’d like to know, we’d like know, why did you become so wealthy on a government payroll?”
Reid called it a “low blow.”
“I think most everyone knows I was a very successful lawyer. I did a very good job of investing. I’ve been on a fixed income since I went to Washington,” he said.
Angle’s campaign subsequently released a TV spot hitting Reid for “living large in the D.C. Ritz-Carlton” and “making a million dollars from a sweetheart land deal.”
This story was originally posted at 7:02 p.m. and updated at 9:06 p.m.