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September 17, 2014

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THE GOVERNOR’S RACE:

Rory Reid reaching out to rural Nevadans

Voting bloc is historically hostile to big-city candidates

Image

Leila Navidi / Las Vegas Sun

Rory Reid, left, chats with Summer Alger of Spring Creek, who’s holding her five-month-old son Beau, during “Breakfast with Rory Reid” at the Red Lion Hotel & Casino in Elko, Nevada Friday, February 12, 2010.

Rory Reid Rural Tour

Matt Holford, from left, of Wells laughs with Dani Dalton of Clover Valley, and Maggie Safford of Clover Valley during a house party at Holford's house for gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid in Wells, Nevada Friday, February 12, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Rory Reid knows a few things about cows.

He once helped save three dozen of them with a garden hose and a knife.

The story is the comical cap to a campaign stump speech intended to show that the Clark County Commission chairman is, at least, vaguely familiar with what goes on in the rural reaches of the state.

On a Thursday afternoon in February, he’s trying it out on a dozen people, mostly ranchers, in the ballroom at Sturgeons Casino. The crowd is sizing up the likely Democratic nominee for governor over cold cuts and potato chips.

As Reid tells the story, he was staying at the Wells ranch of an Elko County commissioner when his host woke him at 2 a.m. and asked for his help.

“I don’t know what goes on in Wells at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Reid says, “but I didn’t ask questions.”

The two men jumped into a pickup truck and drove out to the fields where dozens of calves were moaning and rolling on the ground. The animals had eaten bad feed. Reid got a quick lesson in farm medicine, as his rancher friend showed him how to use a garden hose — and failing that, a knife — to vent the bloated beasts.

The crowd’s reaction: laughter and knowing nods.

But when Reid opens the floor to questions, the mood quickly cools.

One woman says Las Vegas “doesn’t think we’re one state,” that Southern Nevada wants to steal Northern Nevada’s water.

A couple of ranchers argue with Reid about Yucca Mountain, saying the proposed nuclear waste repository could mean long-term jobs for rural communities.

Elsewhere, voters talked about Southern Nevada water czar Pat Mulroy as if she were a terrorist hellbent on sucking the rurals dry so Las Vegas can have more casinos and tract housing.

“Rural Nevada is scared to death of the big cities,” said Denny Stanhope, a Wells native who returned seven years ago after retiring from a government job in Florida. “Las Vegas has the population, the money and the votes to roll right over us. It will kill our lifestyle.”

It’s the kind of reaction that led Dina Titus, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2006, to dismiss rural campaigning as a fool’s errand. She lost here heavily, despite her outreach. As she put it, it was a waste of time to try to “switch them in the rurals.”

Reid, however, is modeling his campaign after that of another politician: Barack Obama. In 2008, Obama won 34 percent of the rural vote in Nevada, besting Sen. John Kerry’s performance four years earlier by 6 points, according to exit polls. The goal wasn’t to win, but to narrow Republican margins in the reddest counties. The strategy worked in large part because of the resources the campaign deployed there, opening local offices and cultivating volunteers early, nearly two years before Election Day.

This year, Reid is hoping for a repeat. Lovelock was the first stop on an eight-county, three-day tour of Northern Nevada. The campaign logged 1,000 miles through open-sky country, driving for hours to speak to small groups — and on one occasion, an empty restaurant.

In Elko, Reid gave an interview to a country music station that devotes much of its daytime air to conservative talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

When the campaign stayed in Eureka, staffers found patrons of the Owl Club — the kind of place that sells only Marlboro Reds and displays bumper stickers from Bill Clinton’s impeachment — watching the latest “Rambo.” Staffers were circumspect about who they worked for, saying only it was a candidate for higher office.

“That’s fine,” a man shouted, “as long as he’s not a liberal!”

Still, the campaign is convinced there are votes to be won here.

It’s no coincidence that the architect of Reid’s campaign is David Cohen, the man who oversaw Obama’s caucus operation in Nevada. Because Reid is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, he’s running a general election campaign, courting rural support now, while his three would-be opponents battle each other in a primary that could fracture the Republican base and alienate voters.

That doesn’t mean he has a head start on the competition. Reid’s challenge: He’s the wonky, mild-mannered son of the hated U.S. Senate majority leader, running in a populist, Republican year.

He’s also avoiding the race’s most pressing issue — the $887 million budget shortfall.

Notably on this rural swing, his being the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came up just once in three days, at a meet-and-greet in Ely, where Reid arrived to the sight of a yellow Ford Explorer decorated with protest signs. One read, “I really don’t trust any Reid.” A bumper sticker popular throughout town read: “Elect anyone BUTT Harry Reid.”

Ely Mayor Jon Hickman publicly apologized to Reid for the signs. Halfway through the event, he rose to offer this: “You’re not your father’s son, are you?”

In interviews, voters said they were evaluating Reid on his own merits. And there were indications that might actually be the case.

After the pointed questions from the crowd in Lovelock, Tom Moura, one of Reid’s biggest inquisitors, invited the candidate on an impromptu tour of his cattle ranch.

A lifelong Republican, Moura supported Gov. Jim Gibbons in 2006. The governor appointed him chairman of the state Dairy Commission. Four years later, Moura is shopping for another candidate. He says he’s disappointed by Gibbons’ divisive style — his lashing out at the Legislature for the state’s fiscal woes — and his personal transgressions — accusations of adultery and a messy divorce.

But Gibbons isn’t likely Reid’s problem. Recent Las Vegas Review-Journal polls show former federal Judge Brian Sandoval leading the Republican field, and Reid trailing him by double digits statewide. In rural counties, Reid receives only 25 percent of the vote.

Enter Reid, riding shotgun in Moura’s pickup truck as it rumbled down a dirt road. He peered into the pastures, marveling at a calf being born a few yards away.

Reid uses the quick tour to learn about the state’s fragile agriculture sector. The two talk about the resilience of alfalfa, the movement to recruit California poultry farmers — and nature itself.

“Deer and cow,” Reid says, “do they keep their distance?”

He may have visited most of these towns before and, as he tells crowds, fished in nearly every lake in Nevada, but he admittedly doesn’t know the price of a pound of beef.

As far as Reid is concerned though, these trips are the equivalent of studying for the big exam. And few things fascinate Reid more than facts, figures and policy. He quizzes his campaign staff with Nevada trivia. In college, Reid’s roommate had a poster of Farrah Fawcett; he had a map of Nevada.

On the campaign trail, he tells audiences he wants to be known as “the man with the plan.”

He’s got a bookish image, too. Reid has packed horses, but he’s no cowboy. On this trip, he looks more like a spokesman for J. Crew, wearing rimless glasses, freshly pressed jeans, button-up shirts, powder-blue sweaters and brown loafers. A leather jacket completes a decidedly metrosexual look.

Reid says he’s being himself.

“People sense when you’re not being genuine,” he says in an interview. “I’m not going to pretend I’m a gregarious party lover because it’s not true.”

By reputation, Reid is a wonk, a pragmatist who weighs decisions carefully. That is not to say he’s a stiff in the art of retail politics. The dry wit that comes across in private is evident on the campaign trail.

On a tour of a prospective copper mine in Yerington, several women asked for a picture with Reid. His response: “Now you have something to throw darts at.” When talking about education, he throws in a zinger: “I sleep with my favorite teacher every night,” he says. “She’s my wife.”

In trying to convince voters he’ll be more than the governor of Clark County, he’s saying that because the recession has stalled Southern Nevada’s growth and the state Supreme Court has put on hold Clark County’s plans for a water pipeline, officials have more time to work together to ensure both rural and urban ways of life.

He is also capitalizing on his role as commission chairman, telling voters that he oversees a budget nearly as large as the state’s general fund — and has balanced it year after year without raising taxes.

He says Gibbons is offering little more than a slogan — no new taxes — while he is offering a plan for the future. The centerpiece of Reid’s campaign is a plan to diversify Nevada’s economy beyond gaming and mining. By investing in infrastructure and education, he says the state can attract higher-wage industries, particularly renewable energy, which would boost the geothermal-rich rurals. Warehousing and shipping are also big opportunities, Reid says.

The biggest hole in Reid’s campaign is his answer — or lack thereof — to the state’s $887 million budget crisis. Over three days, it’s the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds, and Reid dodges the question every time.

“We are never going to solve our fiscal problem without solving our economic problem,” he tells crowds. “If we diversify our economy, we’ll have the money we need without raising taxes.”

When pressed on the immediate crisis, Reid tells voters he would make strategic cuts that, while painful, would make government “more efficient.” By several measures, Nevada has the leanest state government in the nation.

At its core, the message is an echo of Gibbons. Democratic lawmakers are agreeing with Gibbons in principle that cuts, not taxes, are the way to close the budget gap.

“At this stage, I don’t think any politician is going to tell you anything,” said Gordon Schumacher, a retired miner who attended a town hall in Winnemucca. “They are trying to cover their tracks. I heard a lot of problems, but I didn’t hear any solutions” to the deficit.

Voters interviewed by the Sun said they were looking for leadership in the current crisis, failing to see it in either party. Taxes, they said, are the only solution in sight.

At a house party in Wells, Jolene Supp, the town manager, pressed Reid on the budget, saying economic development, while necessary, is a long-term activity and wouldn’t help the state’s immediate fiscal mess. In Yerington, Maureen Williss said, “I’m sick of hearing campaign speeches, promises and no solutions.”

For his part, Reid is aware of his ducking and weaving. He knows the state’s tax structure is flawed and needs to be reformed.

But taxes have been politically toxic in Nevada, so Reid is playing it safe, waiting for the results of an independent “visioning committee” the Legislature appointed to study the tax structure.

“I can appreciate the (budget) question,” Reid says in an interview. “But I think people are going to need to be more patient and let the facts develop. I don’t think it makes sense if you are running to be governor in 2011 to be making a whole bunch of guesses about either what the situation will be a year from now or about how best to solve the current downturn. We shouldn’t speculate.”

Reid says he is talking to Democratic leadership privately, insisting that in this week’s special session “there will be a significant distinction between what they ultimately propose and what the governor does.”

Reid’s chances may depend on it.

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