Las Vegas Sun

November 29, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

It’s Reid vs. Heller now in U.S. Senate race

Even if they loathe each other, U.S. senators from the same state usually try to maintain a facade of collegiality.

The notoriously amiable Harry Reid is a perfect example. He superficially got along with everyone, from Chic Hecht in the mid-1980s to Richard Bryan in the 1990s and John Ensign in the 2000s.

But now, on the eve of the general election season for a contest that could determine whether he remains majority leader, Reid will have a difficult time keeping up the pretense with his latest compatriot, Dean Heller. Indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Reid might as well be on the ballot for the second straight cycle. One of his key operatives is on loan to Rep. Shelley Berkley, and a third-party group run by one of his former press secretaries this week began an attack on Heller that brought back memories of last cycle’s sequential outside assaults on Sue Lowden and Sharron Angle.

As Berkley generally avoids media encounters that might force her to talk about her ethics probe, cocooned by Team Reid as much as possible, the majority leader has become Heller’s de facto opponent.

This has been a long time coming and was, perhaps, inevitable. It’s not just that Reid’s folks are hegemons who run the Democratic organization in Nevada. Or that Reid may need the Nevada seat to flip Democratic to retain his scepter. He was always going to be involved — and Heller knew that.

But now, I sense a personal element since the two senators have clashed over Reid’s pick for a federal judgeship. After Heller discovered she had questioned the application of the Second Amendment , he tried to keep it from becoming a public battle. But I sense Reid holds Heller responsible for this getting out — he wasn’t — and is not thrilled at having his nominee in limbo.

So this week, a group named Patriot Majority began a substantial television campaign in the key swing county of Washoe. The entrance of Patriot Majority, run by former Reid spokesman Craig Varoga, presages an encore of 2010, when the outfit spent millions softening up Lowden and then Angle, helping salvage Reid’s seat.

The ratcheting up did not go unnoticed by Heller, who sent out a breathless pitch headlined, “Harry Reid is attacking you,” soon after the ad began airing:

“We’re under attack. A Harry Reid front group is attacking us with $186,950 in TV ads filled with distortions and outright falsehoods ... with more to come.”

Much more, I’d guess.

Heller’s reaction is instructive. It tells us that he is going to take on Reid directly and that he will use the polarizing majority leader as a fundraising magnet.

The irony here is rich. Reid is now acting as a stand-in for a woman who was not his first choice to run against Heller and who he stiff-armed for months until he realized neither Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto nor Secretary of State Ross Miller would run.

But — and this is where Heller should worry — once Team Reid is in, these folks, including Prince Harry himself, are all in.

Reid months ago dispatched one of his best men, Zac Petkanas, to help the Berkley campaign. Petkanas is smart and relentless, two qualities Reidites apparently are required to demonstrate before they graduate from the modern Machiavellian school.

But this is a different atmosphere, and Dean Heller is not Sharron Angle or Sue Lowden. There will be no chickens-for-checkups or Asians-who-look-like-Hispanics to use in paid media.

Nevertheless, the Reno ad campaign tells us that Team Reid has begun trying to soften up Heller in his home base, where the congresswoman needs a lot of help. I’m not sure I believe that NBC/Marist poll that shows her 12 points down to Heller in Washoe. But even if that’s not true — and it may be close — she is not known in Washoe County, where Heller has not run all that robustly in Reno during his congressional tenure. Jill Derby beat him there in ’06 and came within 5 points in ’08 — and if Berkley can come close in Washoe, she can become a senator. She doesn’t have to win Washoe; she just can’t get blown out.

So that’s why Reid, er, Berkley, er, Patriot Majority is up on the air now with that attack ad, determined to define Heller differently now that he is a senator. There will be much more like this, too, along with the boiler plate Heller-wants-to-take-your-Medicare and Heller-hates-women stuff.

Harry Reid is the one guy you don’t want to run against in Nevada. And now he is front and center.

Maybe Berkley should just buy a house in Reno and continue hibernating until November. I wonder if it’s too late to get her name changed to Harry Reid on the ballot.

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