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July 26, 2016

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jon ralston:

One word: Preparation

How did Harry Reid withstand the Tea Party tidal wave and beat conservative Sharron Angle in the U.S. Senate race?

Shortly before the June 8 primary, I was chatting with a Harry Reid operative about my plans for a break after covering the intense Republican scrum, taking advantage of the usual summer doldrums.

“Don’t go anywhere,” the Reidite admonished me. “You are going to want to be around.”

I changed my plans. The Reid folks didn’t change theirs.

From the evening Sharron Angle won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, when the Reid campaign had two lacerating websites ready to go, to the ensuing few weeks, when ad after ad pummeled the Tea Party darling with her own words, the Senate majority leader’s political team exemplified the Boy Scout motto. They were prepared — for anything.

That assiduous preparation and exemplary execution paid off: Two days after the primary, a Rasmussen Reports poll, flawed though it may have been, showed Angle ahead, 50-39. A month later, Rasmussen had it 46-43, a dead heat.

Looking back on the most intense and in so many ways, most incredible, U.S. Senate race in Nevada history, I believe Reid won the race in those four weeks after the primary — or, perhaps, even before that.

Angle’s negatives were soaring — and what goes up doesn’t come down — turning the race into a test of who could mobilize supporters come November. And considering Reid had assembled the best integrated field operation the state has seen and Angle had, well, none, this game effectively was over by midsummer.

Angle’s nutty effusions made headlines and cable TV endless loops. But if her negatives weren’t quite high and the race’s momentum forever changed (even though the flawed public polling didn’t show it), by the time she suggested Second Amendment remedies or suggested Sharia law was on American soil, she might have survived.

But the plan worked. The Reid organization’s Terminator-like single-mindedness, relentlessness and discipline turned preparation into the most satisfying victory of Reid’s career, a resurrection unthinkable most of the year by the Beltway cognoscenti. Combined with an Angle campaign that was thoroughly unprepared for the post-primary onslaught — think of a Little League batter facing Roy Halladay — that by the time the GOP nominee brought in some D.C. pros, the damage was insurmountable.

Truth be told, once the Angle campaign righted itself, the effort was serviceable and, at times, quite good. There was not much more they could have done. They stayed focused on the economy, with some help from American Crossroads, played up (but ultimately overplayed) illegal immigration and fueled suspicions that Reid was out of touch and perhaps corrupt — an attack, I think, Team Reid feared would resonate if it had started earlier. Like Team Reid, Team Angle had a candidate problem — but a flawed candidate with a ground game will almost always defeat a flawed candidate without one.

The success of any endeavor — any sporting event, television program, final exam and, yes, political campaign — is preparation. That is the real story of how Reid won.

And that preparation did not begin in 2010, or even 2009. The seeds for this Reid victory were planted some time ago.

•••

Reid knew he would be targeted the moment he took over for Tom Daschle after the 2004 election. He couldn’t have foretold just how high his negatives would go or just how low the economy would sink. But the goal was to be prepared — for anything.

Step one: Turn Nevada from a slightly red state to a solidly blue one.

The change came as Reid, ever the back-room player and always looking ahead and for himself, maneuvered for Nevada to get an early presidential caucus for the ’08 cycle and the machine started cranking in ’07. Reid publicly challenged his chief political operative, Rebecca Lambe, imported from Missouri, to turn out 100,000 people for the caucuses. I scoffed, as did many others. About 117,000 Democrats showed up.

The rest of that cycle for Team Preparation was dedicated to eliminating possible opponents — they targeted state Sens. Joe Heck and Bob Beers, along with Rep. Jon Porter. All lost.

Even after the cyclical voter registration purge, Democrats maintained a 60,000-vote edge going into 2010, and the Reid folks believed they would need that to offset the GOP turnout advantage and the much-hyped enthusiasm gap.

In 2009, the team dedicated itself to one goal — raising enough money to scare off Rep. Dean Heller or Porter, considered their most formidable opponents. June 16, 2009, helped — the day Sen. John Ensign cast a pall over the Nevada GOP with his stunning revelation of an affair, which left him crippled and Heller frozen in place, perhaps seeing an easier path to a Senate seat in 2012 or if Ensign resigned. Porter received a cushy offer from a lobbying firm; Reid’s letter of recommendation will never be found.

On a parallel track, Team Reid was preparing all the research it might need for various opponents, and hiring staff to assist in research and field and creating a synergistic mix of longtime Nevada operatives and newcomers (as opposed to the toxic combination of local Angle sycophants and the political pros Angle was importuned to hire). Reid essentially assimilated the state Democratic Party, which became a formidable force (again, as opposed to the hollow shell known as the state GOP).

People you have never heard of who played key roles and had been working in the Democratic vineyards for a few cycles preparing for this were field director Brian DiMarzio, data/targeting specialist Justin Gilbert and communications veteran Jon Summers. The fundraising team included Jake Perry, with Reid since ’98, and Chris Anderson, the Nevada-based veteran of Jill Derby’s failed congressional hopes. Out-of-state folks who played invaluable roles included campaign manager Brandon Hall, who came from Alaska, and research maven Matt Fuhrmeyer, recruited from Al Franken’s team and aided by locals Paul Smith and Sean Kennedy. Old Reid political hands Shannon Raborn and Megan Jones were ready to go. Before she left for D.C., Culinary political boss Pilar Weiss helped coordinate the labor effort, and Jayson Sime, who ran the ’08 presidential caucus, was tapped to help in the field. And this year, Kelly Steele, a tireless and creative communications specialist with experience in Washington state and Illinois, came in and juiced up the press operation.

This isn’t even the entire team, but you get the picture. And it was all woven together by Lambe, the intense, talented operative who may be the most valuable political commodity in Nevada.

With the team assembled, the campaign began to prepare at the beginning of 2010 to face Sue Lowden, the deep-pocketed, telegenic former anchorwoman and state senator. She was the person, as one insider put it via e-mail, “we were least interested in facing so we set out to make sure that she either 1) came out of the primary bruised and battered or 2) didn’t come out of the primary at all so we would face Sharron Angle or Danny Tarkanian.”

With the help of Patriot Majority, a third-party group run by former Reid spokesman Craig Varoga that began pounding Lowden on TV on April 30, the Democratic effort to drive up the likely GOP nominee’s negatives did not abate. It is a myth that Reid, as many have opined, simply “picked” his opponent — Lowden turned out to be a paper candidate who made the gaffe of the year (chickens for health care) and Angle was indomitable and boosted by out-of-state funds from the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth.

(One other preparation note: Democrats had lobbied for the primary to be moved back to June from August, thus giving Reid more time to pound whoever won and Republicans less time to rally behind one person. Thus, a dozen candidates caused the entropy that helped Angle emerge.)

As Republicans raised each other’s negatives, the Reid folks weren’t napping. They were hiring more staff, honing the turnout model that would prove the only accurate one this cycle (kudos to pollster Mark Mellman) and targeting Hispanics. “We knew that increasing the share of the electorate who were Hispanic was a key to winning so we invested heavily and ran an aggressive Hispanic program,” a Reid operative told me.

When Angle won on June 8, her campaign had a dilemma — to let Sharron be Sharron or to try to change/massage, deny previous positions. The hybrid solution did not help her and the Reid rapid response team was faster than a speeding news release. The same Democratic Party tracker who caught Lowden in her chickens gaffe followed Angle around and picked up new gems. Others listened to — and called in to — radio programs Angle was on.

In the end, Team Angle didn’t know what hit it. Despite the internal tension between the local yokels and the political pros, despite a campaign manager (Terry Campbell) who chose elective knee surgery during the middle of the biggest race in the country and despite having a thrown-together get-out-the-vote operation, they thought they were crushing Reid among independents. They thought they had the race won, as one insider informed me after I predicted Reid would win the Sunday before the balloting. They believed the public polls that drove the “Angle will win” narrative; they believed their own surveys.

They had no idea.

•••

I have seen the Reid internal polls and they never showed him behind once after they crushed Angle with that advertising blitz after the primary. Not once, despite what the horribly flawed public polls showed. Team Reid left no stone unturned, nothing to chance — UFC, Manny Pacquiao, Republicans for Reid, Dema Guinn, Jim Murren, on and on and on.

They had faith in their model, faith in their team, faith in their field.

But more than all of that, they were prepared — for anything.

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