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Harry Reid’s Story of Political Survival

Reid speaks at post-election news conference in Las Vegas

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada speaks during a post-election news conference in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS | After one of the most closely-watched and hard-fought battles between an incumbent Democrat and a Republican challenger, Harry Reid is looking ahead to another term in the U.S. Senate. A group of reporters and campaign workers gathered to get the senator’s thoughts on what just happened Tuesday night, and what lies ahead.

The workers represented a tableau vivant; a living portrait of the Reid coalition: casino workers and government employees, black, white and Latino, teens and seniors. In 40 years in elected and appointed office in Nevada, Reid had done a lot of favors for a lot of people. While Republican insurgents thrilled rallies across the country with the proposition that government does too many things and spends too much money, Sen. Reid’s victory is a reminder that winning coalitions can still be assembled the old-fashioned way.

Politicians are sometimes larger than life. Their sheer presence is a feature of the campaign atmosphere — hugs, handshakes, slaps on the back, enormous smiles, and laughs to signal that what you’ve just been told is one of the funniest things you’ve ever heard. Though I’ve interviewed Reid many times over the years, it’s always a little surprising how small and unassuming he can be in person. In a small conference room, he needed the microphone. Without it, he might not have been heard in the back of the room. He slipped in through a side door, greeted a few of the happy throng and began to speak.

“The message from last night is simple. The people want us to work together,” he said. Reid said he had started the day very early, appearing on the morning news programs, and followed those appearances up with a conference call to his battered caucus. He said he was sorry about the losses. “Blanche Lincoln was a good senator. Russ Feingold was a good senator.”

Though Harry Reid is well known as a tough infighter and an unsentimental master of legislative maneuver, he then lapsed from English into Washington-ese for a few moments. “I have a good relationship with John Boehner. He’s been a friend for many years. I’ve been trading phone calls with Sen. McConnell through the morning, but I will talk to him later today. We’ve served together for a long time, and I’m sure we can work together for the good of the people.”

I asked him about Sen. McConnell’s declaration in the waning days of the campaign that his main job was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Did that sound like a man who wanted to work with him? Sen. Reid was categorical: “That’s a road to nowhere. The job of the United States Senate is not to make sure Barack Obama a one-term president.” He reiterated his belief that he and McConnell would be able to work together.

It was clear the senator had a few things he wanted to get off his chest. In response to a question from how he put together a “come-from-behind” victory, he seemed a little exasperated. “We’ve got to do something about these polls. They come out constantly, they’re all over the place, and YOU,” he pointed to the ladies and gentlemen of the press, “you eat them up like, I don’t know, the finest pastry.”

“I told you weeks ago I knew where we were. I said all along I was comfortable with where we were.” The Reid campaign’s internal polling had the Majority Leader finishing about where he did, roughly four points ahead of Sharron Angle.

Then he looked back at the most expensive race in the country, in a state with a population of 2.9 million, between Brooklyn and Chicago in size. “We’ve got to do something about campaign money. No one knows who it’s coming from, where it’s coming from. It pours into a state. You would think people giving to a campaign would want people to know they were giving it, would want people to know they were supporting a candidate. You would think people would want to know who’s paying for a campaign.”

Next, a reporter from Spanish-language television suggested to the senator that Latino voters are unhappy with the Democratic Party, while suggesting that he owes his re-election to Hispanic voters. Reid rejected the premise of the question. He insisted the Democratic Party has been a fast friend to Hispanics, and earned their votes and support.

“I remember in earlier campaigns when people would ask me, ‘Why are you putting so much emphasis there?’ when there are two main ideas about the Hispanic vote: They don’t register, and when they do, they don’t vote. Both those ideas were wrong this time.”

“Analysts and strategists were saying we could win if we got 12 percent or 13 percent of the Hispanic vote. The numbers I’ve seen would indicate the Hispanic vote was more like 17 percent of the overall vote this time. If that number holds up, it will represent the Hispanic Community really flexing its muscles politically.”

Republican Brian Sandoval, a Mexican-American and former federal court judge, will be Nevada’s next governor. (He won that race against Rory Reid, the senator’s son.)

Reid turned next to comprehensive immigration reform, a cause he’s supported for years. He told Nevada’s Hispanic voters he was ready to do everything in his power to move immigration reform in the next Congress. “But to do that, we need some help from Republicans. And not one was ready to help us. The last time we tried we had bi-partisan support, and the leaders of the effort were Teddy Kennedy and John McCain. Senator Kennedy passed away. Senator McCain just went away. I’d like to get his help and get it done this time.”

He hoped he could at least get the Dream Act (meant to give young students and soldiers brought to this country as minors by illegal immigrant parents a shot at legal residency and citizenship) a vote in the lame duck session of Congress.

In response to a final question, Reid returned to the language of Washington. Had he spoken to Angle? “Yes, we had a nice conversation last night.” Usually, at this juncture the politician finds something nice to say about the vanquished rival, about having run a good race, or having been gracious in defeat. This had been a bitter campaign, with plenty of rough rhetoric flung from both camps. Given the florid speech of national politicians, the unabashed insincerity and personal hyperbole usually heard in moments like this, Reid had faint praise indeed for his opponent. “I don’t know her well. I do know she’s got a nice family. I told her she was fortunate to have the support of her husband and other members of her family.”

Reid was a little more exuberant the night before at his victory celebration at the Aria Resort and Convention in Las Vegas’ shiny new City Center.

“Today, Nevada chose hope over fear,” he said. He got tremendous applause from the crowd, which had been getting younger and younger all night. “Nevada chose to look forward, not backwards. We know it’s not about us versus them. It’s about all of us, every Nevadan, moving forward.”

The freshly re-elected Senator thanked his campaign workers and his supporters, then got quiet, even for an already soft-spoken man.

“I’ve been in some pretty tough fights in my career. In the streets, in the boxing ring, and in the U.S. Senate. But it’s nothing compared to the fight families are facing all over Nevada right now.”

It was an oblique reference his audience understood immediately. Unlike the increasingly well-born and well-connected members of the United States Senate, Reid had lived a hardscrabble life in a small mining town, raised in a dysfunctional family. He added, “My story proves that difficult is not synonymous with impossible. If a poor kid from Searchlight can make it, anyone can make it.”

Given that Nevada has staggered through the last two years, with spiking unemployment and record foreclosures, nobody would have confused this subdued closing with the usual political pep rally. “Tomorrow morning there’ll still be too few jobs for too many people, too many foreclosure signs, too many students worried about how they can afford college. But tonight, we’ve given Nevada the chance to believe again.”

With gale-force winds blowing against Democratic incumbents, he prevailed against an opponent who was inexperienced in statewide races and gaffe-prone, but formidably well-funded. Money poured into the Angle coffers in the closing months of the campaign from around the country, from Republicans who saw the chance to take down one of their arch-nemeses. Yet there was Harry Reid, a little uncomfortable, choking up a little as he thanked his wife for their life together.

The campaign workers had been watching the big TV screens all night waiting for the candidate to appear. They knew how fortunate they were to be in one of the few hotel ballrooms in America where Democrats had much to cheer about.

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