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Harry Reid and the Last Caucus Crusade

Reid, center, wants to make sure Nevada keeps its unique status. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)
Reid, center, wants to make sure Nevada keeps its unique status. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

LAS VEGAS — The Harry Reid farewell tour will not be a quiet affair.  

“We’ve all worked hard to have these caucuses,” Nevada’s senior senator said at an outreach event here as the Silver State gears up for Saturday’s first-in-the-West presidential contest, one that he helped move up on the electoral calendar.  The former boxer then jabbed at the even-earlier presidential states, earning some laughs but leaving no doubt his wish to ensure his state a position of influence. Reid also has some very practical reasons for advocating Nevada’s caucus system, something he hopes will benefit Democrats in November and years down the road. “It was wrong to have determination of who would be president of the United States determined in Iowa, 97 percent white, no diversity. Then you whip off to New Hampshire, which has no people. And no diversity,” Reid told a Latino outreach gathering of Democrats at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Tuesday. Nevada’s position early in the year is deserved, he added, because it is “representative of what America is.”  

Reid’s caucus push, though, is more than just about holding onto a prestige position in presidential election years. “We want to register a lot of Democrats that day,” Reid told the crowd.  

It’s a mantra for a man who has been involved in Nevada politics since the 1960s. The following day in Reno, he re-emphasized the importance of the caucuses to the state party.  

“Every place I go, I say, remember you don’t have to be pre-registered. Register when you come there. You’ve never registered in your whole life? This is your opportunity to do it. And when we did this eight years ago, it brought us a lot of people. And so I hope that’s what happens on Saturday,” he said at the Washoe Democratic Headquarters on Wednesday.  

That’s exactly right, said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party.  

“Nevada Democrats are using our caucuses as an organizing tool to mobilize our ground game and our network of volunteers and supporters early in the cycle. We’re going to be a critical swing state again in 2016, and we’re using this process to look ahead to the general election, so we can win Nevada for our presidential nominee, elect Catherine Cortez Masto to the U.S. Senate, send more Democrats to Congress and re-take our majorities in the state Senate and Assembly.”  

When Reid started as city attorney of Henderson, Nev., in 1964, Nevada had just under 300,000 residents, and Henderson was a dusty outpost not too far away from his even dustier hometown of Searchlight. Henderson is now a bustling suburb of Las Vegas with a little more than a quarter-million residents, and the state has approximately 2.8 million.  

It’s a swing state at the presidential level with six electoral votes at stake and it consistently yields close Senate races. Reid knows this well, having eked out a close victory in 1998 by just 438 votes over Republican John Ensign and notching another close one in 2010 against Sharron Angle despite a terrible year for Democrats and a cratered economy in his state. Reid’s campaign put to good use the registration numbers and other voter information the state party gleaned from the 2008 caucuses to overcome the political environment and his own lackluster favorability ratings.  

This year, Nevada again is expected to be a swing state at the presidential level. The race to replace him, shaping up to be Masto, the former state attorney general, and GOP Rep. Joe Heck, is a tossup, according to the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call . Democrats are targeting Heck’s 3rd District seat as well as the 4th District seat they lost in 2014 when Republican Cresent Hardy upset Democratic Rep. Steve Horsford.  

Nevada’s poll position changed in 2008 when, largely because of Reid’s efforts, it became the first presidential nominating contest in the West on Jan. 19. Democrats turned out a little more than 117,000 for the contest that Hillary Clinton won in her 2008 battle with Barack Obama. Republicans clocked in about 44,000.  

In 2012, with Obama running for re-election unopposed, Democrats turned out about 12,000, while Republicans mustered about 33,000, despite a competitive contest.  

Reid’s comments knocking Iowa and New Hampshire are nothing new, nor is pushback against it.  

In October, when he used some of the same language to describe the two early states, it prompted New Hampshire’s Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who’s running against GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in a must-win for Democrats, to demand an apology. The Granite State’s senior senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, said, “Obviously I think that Harry Reid is wrong,” according to WMUR .  

But that hasn’t stopped Reid, who seems to relish getting into the ring. His allies have made sure Nevadans are aware of that, too.  

“Everybody knows why Nevada is first in the West, right,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said at the East Las Vegas event. “All eyes are on Nevada. First in the West for a reason,” he continued, gesturing to the seated figure of Reid.  

It’s a legacy Reid is well aware of. Asked whether Nevada would retain its place on the calendar after he retires, he replied, “I sure hope so, if I have anything to say about it, sure.”

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