Embattled Reid looks to November election

Democratic senators say Harry Reid will find a place in the pantheon of the most effective Senate majority leaders, but he still needs to convince skeptical voters in Nevada to re-elect him.

When the Senate passed healthcare reform legislation in December, which Reid (D-Nev.) authored and President Barack Obama signed into law on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) predicted that Reid would go down in history as one of the great leaders of all time.

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But Reid’s one-time colleague, former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), said that’s a distinction lost on most voters.

“It’s a great victory for him personally,” said Bryan. “He deserves high marks, but no one out here in America knows about the Senate process. That’s inside baseball. The average citizen doesn’t know how effective a majority leader he is. No one, not even the sophisticated people, really understand.”

Instead of hearing praise for his procedural acumen, Reid will have to fend off blunt attacks on the bill when he travels back to Nevada for the congressional recess.

Republicans and conservative activists will try to make healthcare reform a rallying cry in the Silver State, where Reid has low public approval numbers and faces a tough reelection.

And many Nevadans are more concerned about the state’s 13 percent unemployment rate than about complex healthcare law that is difficult to understand and won’t be fully implemented until years from now.

But political analysts in the state say passage of the bill will help the embattled leader in two important respects: It will cement his reputation as a politician who can deliver the goods in Washington and it will give him concrete talking points.

“It helps Reid by giving him talking points so he doesn’t have to conduct the debate on the ideological level Republicans would prefer,” said Ted Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Instead of debating vague threats about a government takeover and healthcare “death panels,” Reid can focus on the benefits that kick in this year, such as a provision allowing children to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26 or the creation of purchasing pools to help high-risk people buy insurance.

These specific reforms are popular in Nevada. But public opinion of the overall bill is negative, because many Nevadans disapprove of the way it was passed, a process Reid orchestrated as majority leader.

National polls have shown an uptick in support for the Democratic healthcare reform since its passage Sunday, but political experts say it’s too early to say how voters in Nevada will react.

“It’s not popular here just like it’s not popular anywhere, but the question is whether Obama and the Democrats can turn around opinion by November,” said Jon Ralston, a well-known commentator on Nevada politics.

He said that failure to enact reform would have hurt Reid by undercutting the argument that he is someone who can deliver for Nevada’s interests in Washington.

And Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, noted that polling data shows many Nevadans support the specific Democratic reforms, such as prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against medical conditions, even while they are skeptical about the broad bill.

Republicans are betting they can use healthcare reform to bludgeon Reid and other Democrats.

Sarah Palin and Tea Party activists will hold a massive rally in Reid’s tiny hometown of Searchlight, Nev., to protest passage of the healthcare bill and call for Reid’s defeat.

Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons has pressured state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, to challenge the law on constitutional grounds, although she has resisted so far.

Political observers in Nevada note Reid has taken a low profile on the issue of healthcare reform in recent weeks.

While aides to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have touted her behind-the-scenes role in reviving healthcare reform in media interviews, Reid has been content to let her, Obama and other colleagues bask in the limelight.

“He has not been visibly taking credit for it,” said Dan Hart, a Democratic political consultant in Nevada. “I’m a little surprised. I’m a supporter [of Reid] and would want him to take credit for it.”

Eric Herzik, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, agreed.

“He was out in front on the Senate bill,” said Herzik, in reference to Reid. “He was the defined author and he got beat up for that. He may be a little more cautious now.”

Summers, Reid’s spokesman, however, disputed that Reid has distanced himself from the bill. He noted that Reid has issued a press release a day touting the new healthcare reform law, conducted radio interviews on the subject and held a press conference with supporters of the legislation on Wednesday.

Summers said the attention has focused on Pelosi because “that’s where the last legislative action took place.”

Reid also has been preoccupied since last week by the health of his wife, Landra, who was seriously injured in a car accident that broke her back and neck.

Colleagues said the ups and downs of the healthcare debate took a toll on Reid, who has told colleagues the process left an indelible imprint on him.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who played a leading role in healthcare reform negotiations, said Reid’s work had been “underrated.”

“The thing I love about Harry is that he doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking about that — he has a long view of things,” Dodd said. “I have no doubt that historically, Harry Reid’s going to do well.”

Dodd said the process was “very hard” on Reid.

“It was very emotional,” Dodd said.