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Politics & Poker: Reid Is at Top of Republicans’ 2010 List of Targets

Leave it to Dick Wadhams, the pugnacious Republican strategist now serving as Colorado GOP chairman, to boldly say what most Republicans have been thinking about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

[IMGCAP(1)]Republicans have been excited for months by the knowledge that Reid is vulnerable in his quest for a fifth term. But in a fundraising appeal last week, Wadhams boiled down their sentiments into a single, potent message: We can get another scalp here.

Wadhams penned a letter for Sue Lowden, the former Nevada GOP chairwoman who is one of 10 Republicans vying to knock off Reid next year. Wadhams’ decision to wade into the Nevada race carries a lot of pop: In his peripatetic political career, Wadhams’ biggest triumph came as campaign manager for Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) in 2004, when Thune ousted Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle by 2 points. In his letter, he compared Lowden to Thune, calling her “a candidate with sheer guts and determination.—

But Wadhams also acknowledged that Reid’s re-election fight is much different from Daschle’s — in part because of the political circumstances, and in part because of Reid’s own skills as a “nasty street fighter.—

“Tom Daschle was a mere obstructionist of the Republican agenda,— Wadhams wrote. “Harry Reid is the chief architect of the worst parts of the Obama-Democratic agenda. … Tom Daschle was a rank amateur compared to Harry Reid.—

Wadhams is right that there are parallels to 2004, and right that there are differences. But the scalp metaphor is apt. The question is whether the result in the Nevada Senate race will turn out to be as demoralizing for Democrats as the South Dakota results were six years ago — and whether Reid’s peril will preoccupy Senate Democratic strategists as they plot their overall strategy for next fall.

Viewed as part of a continuum, the Daschle/Reid electoral woes have got to be troubling for Democrats. Throw in then-Speaker Tom Foley’s (D-Wash.) defeat in 1994, and you’ve got an even bigger and more troubling trend. Party strategists, who must protect seats all over the country, can, for the most part, only watch their struggling leaders and worry.

“You can only do so much to help a leader— in electoral distress, said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1994 cycle. “Leaders are largely able to raise their own money and take care of their own campaigns.—

Most people didn’t really know Foley was in trouble until just a few weeks before Election Day. The Republican wave broke late that cycle, and Foley all of a sudden seemed like the epitome of the out-of-touch Congressional veteran. Republican George Nethercutt cinched the deal with voters by making term limits the cornerstone of his campaign — a pledge he later broke.

It was easy to see why Tom Daschle was vulnerable in 2004. Despite his 30 years of service to South Dakota, he had clearly “gone Washington,— with his $2 million D.C. home and his lobbyist wife and his role as the man most responsible for slowing George W. Bush’s agenda. He represented a conservative state, after all. And in Thune, he had an attractive challenger, a proven statewide vote-getter who had come within a hair of winning a Senate seat two years earlier.

Harry Reid’s political predicament is more difficult to explain in certain ways. Nevada, the state with the most itinerant population in the nation, appears to be trending Democratic. President Barack Obama carried the state by 12 points. The state Democratic Party is more organized than it’s ever been, thanks in part to the successful presidential caucuses it held last year, which Reid promoted. Reid has his own solid political operation and can draw on the party infrastructure. Unions, environmental groups and other Democratic allies have influence there.

Nevada Republicans are in disarray. Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) is plagued by personal scandal and is wildly unpopular, and the sex scandal surrounding the state’s other Senator, John Ensign (R), is a distraction for the GOP, to say the least. Reid has deep connections to the most powerful industries in the state, particularly the gaming industry — which provides some of his most reliable donors, Republicans as well as Democrats. He fights like a tiger for the interests of his state. And even though he spends a lot of time in Washington, as Daschle did, every third word out of his mouth is “Searchlight— — suggesting he knows the importance of maintaining a connection to home, even if he doesn’t get there as often as he’d like.

Of course, the very itinerant nature of Nevada hurts Reid. A lot of new voters don’t know who he is or what he’s done for the state. And the older ones? You can’t be in politics as long as Reid has and not make some enemies. People don’t seem to like the fact that his son, Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid (D) — who happens to be a dead ringer for his dad — is running for governor at the same time the elder Reid is asking voters for another term. Bad as the national economy is, it’s a lot worse in Nevada, making Reid doubly susceptible to whatever criticism is naturally flowing the Democrats’ way. Triply susceptible when you consider, as Dick Wadhams said, he’s “the chief architect— of the Democratic agenda. And, you know, Harry Reid is nobody’s idea of warm and fuzzy.

But you can’t beat somebody with nobody — or can you? The 10 people seeking the Republican nomination would certainly qualify as nobodies — or at least as second-tier candidates — by most standards. So how do you explain that Lowden, a former state Senator and onetime local TV personality, led Reid by 10 points in the latest independent poll? Or that attorney Danny Tarkanian (R), who has lost bids for state Senate and Nevada secretary of state in recent years, was leading by 7 points? (Tarkanian, the son of the famous former University of Nevada-Las Vegas hoops coach, Jerry Tarkanian, at least has a famous name.)

Even more disturbing for Democrats is Reid’s 38 percent favorable rating, compared to the 49 percent of poll respondents who viewed him unfavorably. And that Mason-Dixon poll, released last week, came after Reid had run a round of positive TV spots.

Even with $8.7 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, it’ll be hard for Reid to turn those numbers around. Never mind Tom Daschle, who ran slightly ahead of or even with Thune in most surveys and whose favorability ratings remained decent until the end; Reid increasingly is looking like New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), or former Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), losing candidates who started recent election years low in the polls, and were never able to rise above a certain level.

And Sue Lowden, Danny Tarkanian — we had a president named Jimmy, so why not a Senator named Danny? — whoever emerges as the Republican nominee next summer will become John Thune in an awful hurry, “the national GOP’s favorite person in the world,— as sage Nevada political commentator Jon Ralston says, a Republican celebrity who will see a huge influx of campaign cash.

Barack Obama won’t be on the ballot next year, so defeating Reid may be the best way for Republicans — inside and outside of Nevada — to punish him.

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