Analysis: Despite emphatic ‘yes,’ some hear ‘maybe’ as Harry Reid faces 2016

Serious injuries suffered while exercising have called into question Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's intentions to run again in 2016, despite his repeated statements that he plans to seek a sixth term.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

Every few years, for decades, the same two questions have arisen whenever Nevada political types get together: Will Harry Reid run again? Can he possibly survive another grueling reelection fight?

The answers have always been yes and yes, though it wasn’t due to overwhelming regard for the state’s senior United States senator. Reid was once reelected by fewer than 450 votes and won his fifth term in 2010 thanks in large part to the glaring deficiencies of his tea party opponent.

Now, however, there is some doubt whether Reid will pursue another run in 2016, even though the leader of Senate Democrats has stated, repeatedly and emphatically, his full intention to do so.

It’s not the prospect of top-shelf Republican competition — there is none, so far — or the renewed onslaught of tens of millions of dollars in negative ads that have caused uncertainty about Reid’s plans. Rather, it is the horrific injuries he suffered on New Year’s Day in a freak accident while exercising at his Las Vegas-area home.


A resistance band snapped during the senator’s stretching routine, smacking Reid in the face and sending him catapulting into a set of bathroom cabinets. He broke several ribs and facial bones and badly injured his right eye.

“It didn’t knock me out, but it sure hurt,” Reid told reporters in his laconic way.

Although he has returned to work on Capitol Hill, with a prominent bandage slashing from his forehead to cheek, Reid faces the prospect of several operations to try to fully restore his vision. He underwent a second surgery on Wednesday.

Even as Reid moves ahead with preparations for a reelection bid — raising money, hiring campaign staff and the like — people who have spoken with the 75-year-old lawmaker say he is mindful that his ability to wage a successful reelection campaign will depend in good part on the state of his recovery. It may be months before that is known.

A decision to step aside would not only reverberate in the Senate, where Reid has led Democrats since 2004, but deal an epic blow to his party in Nevada, where Reid has been enormously important in transforming the state from a Republican bastion in national elections to one President Obama handily won two times.

With no presidential or Senate race to draw Democrats to the polls, Republicans came roaring back in 2014, reelecting Gov. Brian Sandoval in a landslide and capturing every statewide office. That leaves an exceedingly thin roster of possible Democratic replacements should Reid opt against another race.

Not that Nevada’s GOP, split between the establishment wing and an assertive tea party insurgency, is in especially great shape.

Sandoval is far and away the establishment favorite to challenge Reid. But the governor has all but taken himself out of the race, expressing no desire to move to Washington or serve in the Senate. (“Thank God,” said one Reid confidant; like many Democrats, he is convinced Sandoval would easily defeat the senator.)


Although the governor has yet to issue a statement definitively ruling out a 2016 bid, his actions, including a call for the largest tax increase in Nevada history, have signaled the unlikelihood of a run.

“Do you really think … I would propose the things that I proposed last night, thinking I might be on a ballot?” Sandoval asked Jon Ralston, a columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal, after unveiling the tax proposal and an ambitious education overhaul plan in last month’s State of the State address.

That leaves a yawning gap between Sandoval and the next tier of possible Reid challengers, which includes Mark Hutchison, the state’s newly elected lieutenant governor; Michael Roberson, the majority leader of the state Senate; and Heidi Gansert, a former top Sandoval advisor who is now an executive at the University of Nevada Reno.

Sandoval is not wholly disinterested in the race. He is expected to work behind the scenes to rally Republicans around a single candidate, hoping to avoid a repeat of 2010, when former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle emerged the winner of a free-for-all primary. Her extreme views and penchant for incendiary rhetoric turned a once-close contest into a relative romp for the unpopular incumbent, who won by 5 percentage points.


Reid, who began his political career more than 45 years ago in the state Legislature here in Carson City, has never been one to engender great personal affection. His colorless persona and lifeless speaking style make him neither huggable nor telegenic.

But Reid is an extremely canny tactician and his considerable clout has served Nevada well, even as his leadership role in Washington has turned him into a prime target of Republican activists and conservative donors nationwide.

Longtime Reid watchers say he is undeterred by the prospect of another costly, grinding reelection battle. “He’s not one to run away from a fight,” said Sig Rogich, a veteran GOP strategist who has maintained a lifelong friendship with Reid despite their party affiliations.

Mindful that his age will be an issue if he tries for a sixth term, Reid has worked to dispel the notion that his accident was somehow a result of failing health. “I didn’t fall off a treadmill,” he said in an extensive interview last month with Nevada Public Radio.


Describing his three-day-a-week exercise regimen — hundreds of stretches, 250 sit-ups, “some yoga-type stuff” — Reid questioned how many listeners could keep up.

“No one has questioned my physical ability,” he said. “... I’ve always been fairly confident in my ability to fight back, and I’m going to continue to fight back.”

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