Reid’s House of Cards

There’s something that’s been bothering me about the whole Harry Reid/Lucy Flores/LG race theatrics.

Why the melodrama about backing Assemblywoman Flores in the first place? Who else could Democrats muster as a winning candidate to top the ticket in 2014? (Without a presidential race or even a compelling bid against the incumbent Gov. Brian Sandoval, the lieutenant governor’s race is essentially the top of the Nevada 2014 ballot.) And who else has Flores’ demographic appeal — a bootstraps Latina success story who has faced firestorms with grace and come out the other side all the better? Now that Nevada’s Democratic elite have dutifully praised her (careful we don’t see the puppet-strings), I am still left wondering what the hell took Reid so long to deliberate — stirring up the DC gossip-mill in the meantime?

That’s a lot of questions, I admit.

Reid’s dubious history with dispatching with strong female candidates is certainly part of the answer (see: Barbara Buckley, Dina Titus, et al). But I’ve come to the realization that is only part of the picture. We all know that the one person Reid cares about most is himself — his future and his legacy. The fact that he is willing to submarine anyone who gets in his way — from strong women to, perhaps, his own son — is old news. (I don’t think it was just a PR problem with Rory’s last name that sunk his gubernatorial bid.) And I’m inclined to dismiss the idea that the long wait for Reid’s blessing was something of a strategic ploy to drum up interest in the Emily’s List-backed Flores (although I wouldn’t put it past him to employ this technique).

The story everyone is telling is about how Reid labored to find just the right Democrat to run for the almost irrelevant statewide LG seat because Reid is desperate to preserve his own throne in the 2016 senate race — when the ever-popular Sandoval is presumed to run against him. That will be a hard road to hoe for Reid, 74, who has been in the Senate since 1986. That will be 30 years (plus four more in Congress) that a now-old, rich, white dude has been representing Nevada. Put that up against the more youthful, Latino Sandoval? That’s going to be a race tighter than his last one against resident Nevada Nutball Sharron Angle.

Even that feels like the easy way out of understanding how Reid works, which was dissected best by Jon Ralston in Politico in December:

The former boxer’s ability to absorb blows and, even more importantly, to counterpunch, perhaps with an occasional hit below the belt, are the secrets of his longevity—and no doubt he will deploy them once again as the Senate fights this week over the budget deal. Unlike most of the preening Club of 100, Reid expends little effort tending to his public image. Driving home messages (the Tea Party is destructive) and advancing legislation (the nuclear option) are what energize this tireless son of Searchlight, Nev., a speck of a town outside Las Vegas where Reid’s hardscrabble childhood helped produce a man impervious to most political considerations and virtually immune to criticism.

The majority leader is a mélange of contradictions—a Machiavelli with malaprops (otherwise known as Reidisms)—but you can’t understand them just from the vantage point of the theater up on Capitol Hill. I’ve seen them revealed over a quarter century of close observation back in Nevada, where Reid, 74, has always been both a study in outperforming expectations and a political fighter with bare-knuckles ambition. Many still puzzle over this—how Reid can be at once a seemingly soulless manipulator of the process while occasionally revealing deeply held beliefs; a religious man proud of his Mormon faith who has metamorphosed into a social progressive; and an outwardly meek, bland figure whose cutthroat ways make him easily the most feared man in Nevada by politicians of both parties.

If there is one thing that Reid has proven in a 46-year political career that started in the Nevada Assembly — a time spanning longer than most journalists who are covering him have been alive (myself included) — Reid may strategically shake up the board for short-term gain, but he always has his eye on the long-game. Yes, if (and when) Sandoval runs against Reid in 2016, we’ll see a Dem (with one or two favors owed?) move into the governor’s mansion. And that’s a much bigger deal than simple party loyalty.

Why? One word: Redistricting.

2010 was bad for many reasons, but perhaps worst among them was the boost it provided to GOP efforts to use gerrymandering to delay their slide into political irrelevance.

The GOP picked up 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate. And that was horrible. But the real damage was done at the state level, where they picked up 680 state legislative seats and 29 of the 50 governorships, including in key states such as Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They also held absolute control in half the state legislatures.

Thus, Republicans were able to not just solidify their control of the House, where they maintain a 33-seat advantage despite losing the House popular vote by one point in 2012, but they locked in control of myriad state legislatures.

Nevada’s redistricting process is handled by the Legislature (or the courts, when party-based feuding renders the process moot). If current census estimates hold true — with Silver State population increasing — and if the country’s slow migration south and west continues as projected, Nevada could be an important battleground for red- and blue-state bickering (or gerrymandering). Indeed, depending on how the lines are drawn, Nevada shifts permanently from purple to blue. Just look at how a few lines on a map spell very different outcomes in Colorado.

We haven’t had a Democratic governor in Nevada since Bob Miller’s decade-long run ending in 1999. Assuming Sandoval vacates the office to run for Senate in 2016 and assuming Flores is the LG, she’ll not only move into the governor’s mansion in 2016, but be an incumbent in the 2018 governor’s race. That puts her squarely in position to preside over the redistricting process — including veto power. Perhaps this is the long-game we’re too distracted to notice right now amidst the flurry of interest about Flores entering the LG race earlier this month.

Even if Reid does have an eye toward redistricting, there’s a lot that can happen to his house of cards right now. Reid has proven more than formidable over the years — surviving ridiculous gaffes and younger upstarts before — but perhaps now more than ever what Reid is building or moving toward feels precarious. Only time will tell if his machinations are strong enough to weather the beating they will take over the next two years.

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