Reid's role in Nevada House race seen as 2010 political play

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is active behind the scenes trying to help defeat Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) in what Nevada political observers interpret as an effort to protect himself from a future challenge.

Reid’s prominent role as Democratic Party leader and spokesman is seen as politically risky in a red state that President Bush carried in 2000 and 2004 and Ronald Reagan won twice with over 60 percent of the vote.

A recent poll showing that Reid’s approval rating has declined in Nevada raises the possibility that, like his predecessor, former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), he may be vulnerable.

Daschle’s upset loss in the 2004 election was attributed to his conflicting roles representing a conservative state and leading a comparatively liberal Senate Democratic caucus.

A Las Vegas Journal-Review poll last month showed that 43 percent of voters surveyed had a favorable view of Reid, while 39 percent had an unfavorable view. A similar poll before his 2004 reelection gave him a 53 percent approval rating.

Porter is widely viewed as a future senatorial candidate, Nevada Republicans say, and Reid has repeatedly intervened in the second-term Republican’s races.

“He’s been involved in all my races,” Porter said. “He’s been soliciting opponents to run against me since I got here.”

Reid encouraged former Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera to run against Porter in 2002, but Herrera’s campaign fizzled amid rumors of scandal. Herrera was convicted Friday of conspiracy, wire fraud and extortion.

One Reid ally said Republican leaders see potential in Porter. “The national Republicans would really love to have him run against Reid in 2010,” the ally said.

Porter declined to speculate about his political future. “Right now I’m focused on the House,” he said.

The leading Democratic challenger facing Porter is Tessa Hafen, who until recently worked for Reid in the Senate. Reid helped her raise a whopping $369,000 during the first three months of this year, even though Porter’s race is not generally considered one of the 20 most competitive House battles in the country.

Porter said he has heard from donors that Reid has called them to encourage contributions to Hafen.

“She’s raised a lot of money and wouldn’t have without his help and support,” he said.

An aide to Reid said that the minority leader is doing everything he can to help Hafen and had bolstered the candidate’s fundraising at the start of her campaign but that “she’s raised a lot on her own since then.

The aide said Reid’s “tentacles reach throughout the state” and he pays attention to everything political that happens there.

Reid has played a less active role in the race for governor and the Democrats’ effort to defeat Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), with whom Reid forged an unstated nonaggression pact after narrowly beating him in 1998. Ensign won election to the Senate in 2000 after losing to Reid by only 428 votes in 1998, a close call that Reid seems determined never to risk again.

Reid has pushed unions who have attempted to stay neutral in the Porter race to support to Hafen, according to a labor official. The Laborers’ International Union of North America had sought to postpone its involvement because Porter is an incumbent and is viewed as a Republican receptive to labor concerns. But the union agreed to organize a “meet and greet” for Hafen as a courtesy to Reid, the official said.

Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, said Hafen is her own candidate but commented, “Senator Reid intends to do everything he can for her. He’s not going to really need to do much. People in Nevada are ready to support a strong, viable, moderate candidate. Senator Reid is going to try to be as helpful as possible because he believes she’ll be a great leader for Nevada.

“He’s raised money for her, and was at her kickoff event. What I know for a fact is that Reid is strongly supporting Democratic candidates throughout the country.”

Reid has supported Democrats nationwide but usually Senate candidates, his records of his leadership PAC suggest.

Reid’s Searchlight Leadership Fund has given $151,000 to 19 Senate candidates this election cycle, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks political fundraising. He has given $35,500 to nine House candidates. Ten thousand dollars of that went to Hafen, and another $10,000 went to Jill Derby, who is running for the Nevada House seat being vacated by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R), who is running for governor.

Derby, running for an open seat, raised about half as much money as Hafen in the first quarter, $189,000, according to her Federal Election Commission (FEC) report.

Reid gave twice as much to both Hafen and Derby as he gave to Jack Carter, son of former President Jimmy Carter, who is running against Ensign. Reid has given Carter $5,000, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

When Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman traveled to Washington to explore a campaign against Ensign, he reportedly met with Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.); and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) but not with Reid.

A Republican strategist working on the Gibbons campaign said Reid has not been visibly involved in that race.

Nevada observers say Reid likely views Porter as a future rival but may also be motivated by revenge after Porter attacked him for accepting money from clients of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Porter issued a press release in January calling for Reid to return the money and a month later Reid’s aide Hafen announced her intention to challenge him.

“Reid is the kind of guy who views everyone as a threat until he disposes of him,” said Jon Ralston, a Nevada political analyst. “But he clearly was furious with Porter for piling on about Abramoff.”