By Alexander Bolton - 11/01/09 10:32 PM EST
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has taken several steps in
recent months that have bolstered his popularity among liberal
Democrats back home.
Most prominently, Reid this past week announced his intention to include a government-run health insurance plan in the Senate healthcare reform bill, winning plaudits from prominent liberals in D.C. and Nevada.
Reid has championed the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, which many liberals view as unacceptable discrimination against gay soldiers. In late September, Reid pressed President Barack Obama in a letter to weigh in on the issue.
A few weeks ago, Reid, a Mormon, criticized the Mormon Church for backing a California ballot measure banning same-sex marriage.
Earlier in the year, Reid’s battle against coal-fired power plants in Nevada bore fruit when NV Energy, Inc. announced that it would postpone construction on a major plant in the eastern part of the state.
Reid is touting his green-energy credentials in a new campaign ad that highlights his work to speed the development of local solar fields, wind farms and geothermal energy sources.
Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said these actions have strengthened Reid’s standing among liberal Democrats in the state.
Fulkerson said goodwill among Nevada liberals toward Reid will pay off next year.
“That excited Democratic base will be the army he needs to run his voter turnout operation,” said Fulkerson. “Reid’s doing the right thing by showing exceptional leadership on the public option and he will be richly rewarded by the base.”
Reid is facing a what many expect will be a difficult re-election next year. Public polls show him trailing two lesser-known GOP challengers.
Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that Reid's voter turnout strategy would not make up for his shaky poll numbers.
"If someone who's been in the Senate as long as Harry Reid realizes that his most immediate problem is with his base that tells you just how much trouble he's in statewide," said Walsh.
There are nearly 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, and the key to Reid's reelection could be energizing the party base.
But Jon Ralston, one of the state’s foremost political analysts, does not think that Reid is basing his re-election strategy on firing up liberals with his policy stances.
“I don’t think he really cares about liberals, there are so few liberals out in Nevada that it has never been a constituency he has pandered to,” said Ralston. “Reid is worried about one thing: independents.
“Reid has to shore up the Democratic base but that will come because he as a strong campaign infrastructure,” Ralston added. “Reid has the best organization and the best get-out-the-vote operation I’ve seen in this state since I’ve been here.”
Independent political analysts and liberal activists in Nevada agree that Reid has built the biggest campaign ground operation in state history. But some have a different view of just how important a role liberal activists will play in manning that operation.
“A critical mass of liberals are part of Reid’s base,” said Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance.
Fulkerson argues that liberal activists are critical for Reid because they will serve as the volunteers to walk precincts, knock on doors and work phone banks.
Fulkerson noted that Obama carried Nevada by 12 percentage points in 2008, a wider margin than he won nationwide.
Reid’s campaign plans to spend $25 million and wage a massive ground assault.
“We are building the largest ground operation that Nevada has ever seen and it will cover the whole state,” said Brandon Hall, Reid’s campaign manager. “This is the strongest state party that I have every worked with and the campaign workers have been with the party for several successful cycles.”
Ted. G. Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said that Reid has worked to build an impressive ground operation since 1998, when he barely won re-election by fewer than 500 votes.
Jelen said Reid won because the Culinary workers union had a strong get-out-the vote operation and it helped mobilize just enough Democrats to make a difference.
Jelen added that liberal Democrats are important to Reid but not as important as in other states that voted for Obama.
“Reid is trying to appeal to liberal Democrats, especially on non-economic things that won’t result in more tax hikes,” said Jelen, explaining Reid’s stance on gay-rights issues. “But I don’t think that’s his primary emphasis.”
“He’s positioning himself pretty much as a libertarian, which is the political culture of the state,” said Jelen.
Liberal activists say they are happy with Reid’s latest actions, but warn they’re not ready to give him a glowing report card for Election Day just yet.
“I think progressives are pleased he decided to put the public option in the healthcare bill but I’m still waiting to see how this all shakes out,” said Hugh Jackson, author of Las Vegas Gleaner, a liberal blog.
“Reid’s made statements [on healthcare] all over the map, which hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence,” said Jackson.
Reid told reporters in September that healthcare cooperatives could be as effective as a government-run insurance plan in creating competition and reining in costs.
“Progressives are still keeping an eye on him,” said Jackson.
Jelen, the political scientist at UNLV, suggested that the different views of Reid’s relations with liberals may suggest that the Democratic leader is trying to keep himself from being pigeon-holed into any neat classification.
“If you’re getting different stories from different people, it looks like the strategy is working,” said Jelen. “Reid’s been around a long time and he’s very smart.”