Harry Reid’s announcement that he would not be seeking re-election next year caught many by surprise. Just six weeks ago a battered Reid, fresh off the psychological indignity of being forced to the minority and the physical pain from serious eye and facial injuries suffered in an exercise accident, appeared defiant in his intention to run. Manu Raju reported for POLITICO:
Sen. Harry Reid summoned dozens of staffers to the Senate’s Mansfield Room Tuesday and delivered a clear message: He’s running for reelection next year.
The comments are in part aimed at putting to rest growing speculation inside the Senate that the 75-year-old Nevada Democrat — badly hurt from a painful injury to his right eye — would call it quits after nearly three decades in the chamber. The Senate minority leader faces what could be a difficult reelection race next year, plus his would-be successors are ready to run the Democratic Caucus the moment he calls it quits.
Reid even went so far as to direct his top political aide, Rebecca Lambe, to continue putting together a staff from 2016. “I talked to Rebecca this week, they are still interviewing people, the answer is yes,” Reid told POLITICO when asked if he was 100 percent committed to running.”
When pressed to see if there was anything that could change his mind he said, “I’m running. You asked a question that has no answer. I’m going to run.”
But of course he did change his mind. The question, then, is why? There is likely no one answer to that question. Instead, myriad factors were likely at work, ranging from the inevitable creep of age (he’d be 76 at the start of his next term) to the gradual erosion of his political clout.
Nevertheless, it does seem that the difficulty of his coming senate election played a crucial factor.
“We have to make sure that the Democrats take control of the Senate again,” Reid said in a video announcing his retirement. “And I feel it is inappropriate for me to soak up all those resources on me when I could be devoting these resources to the caucus, and that’s what I intend to do.”
The statement is a roundabout admission that he would need to spend a great deal of money in order to fend off a Republican challenger. And he’s likely right. Reid has always been one to squeak by. He has only won his last five Senate contests with an average of 52.1 percent of the vote and his median vote total of 50.3 percent barely cracks a majority. His vulnerability was on full display in 2010 when a walking gaffe-machine named Sharron Angle polled ahead of him for nearly the entire race.
Reid was able to overcome Angle through the sheer force of the dollar bill. He amassed the largest war chest ever built for a statewide race (in other words, ignore his crocodile tears over the impact of money in politics), which he used to fund one of the most shamelessly negative campaigns in history.
But this year is different. POLITICO recently reported that Reid has left than half of the money he had at a comparable point last cycle. The Democratic Party is not nearly as strong as it was for his last election, his health is waning, his influence is gone, there are serious questions about Hillary Clinton’s ability to win in Nevada, his ultra-partisan shtick has tarnished his reputation (remember that straight up lie about Romney not paying taxes for 10 years?), and most importantly, his most likely challengers—state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson and Governor Brian Sandoval—are both well-seasoned, well-liked pols with a knack for fundraising and a grasp of the issues.
Reid is a savvy backroom operator. He expresses very little charisma, lacks any oratorical prowess and has never been known as a policy heavyweight. Yet he overcame each of these deficits to become the leader of the U.S. Senate. He was able to do that because he’s a fighter who can see his opponent’s punches before they are thrown. Reid is retiring because he can see the punch coming and is smart enough to know, that for the first time in decades, he can’t get out of the way.