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Why a vote for Sharron Angle could steer Senate to the left

Conservatives’ effort to oust Reid might result in more liberal action on weighty Nevada issues

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Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., left, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, listen as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaking at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 22, 2010.

2010 General Election

Zip Code
Party Affilliation
Democrat — 60.9%
Republican — 19.1%
Independent — 15.2%
Other — 2.3%
Tea Party of Nevada — 0.8%
Green — 0.7%
Libertarian — 0.7%
Independent American Party — 0.3%
Who are you voting for in the U.S. Senate race?
Harry Reid — 70.7%
Sharron Angle — 26.9%
Scott Ashjian — 1.1%
Wil Stand — 0.5%
Tim Fasano — 0.3%
Jesse Holland — 0.3%
Jeffrey C. Reeves — 0.3%
Michael L. Haines — 0%
Who are you voting for in the Nevada gubernatorial race?
Rory Reid — 61.6%
Brian Sandoval — 32.3%
David Scott Curtis — 2.9%
Eugene "Gino" Disimone — 1.1%
Aaron Y. Honig — 0.8%
Floyd Fitzgibbons — 0.7%
Arthur Forest Lampitt Jr. — 0.6%
Who are you voting for in the U.S. House District 3 race?
Dina Titus — 66.2%
Joe Heck — 29.4%
Barry Michaels — 2.1%
Joseph P. Silvestri — 1.9%
Scott David Narter — 0.5%

This poll is closed, see Full Results »

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

While Republican Sharron Angle has called Harry Reid a liberal voice for special interests, it is Angle who may become the best friend of liberals in Washington should she defeat the majority leader.

As the Senate’s top-ranking Democrat, Reid serves a dual role in Washington: representative of Nevada and chief driver of the Senate agenda.

Take Reid away and there will be a new man at the wheel. And any way you slice it, that man is going to have a history of bending further to the left than Reid, which could have implications for national policy that would play out in Nevada.

As poorly as Democrats are expected to do on Election Day, it’s highly unlikely the party will lose control of the U.S. Senate. So if Angle deposes Reid — which no one in official Democratic circles is yet willing to publicly acknowledge could happen — that sets off almost immediately a firestorm over who should ascend to the caucus leadership: Illinois’ Dick Durbin, who ranks No. 2, or New York’s Chuck Schumer, who is No. 3.

Neither Schumer nor Durbin is a lock for the job should Reid lose, but their left-leaning reputations alone have been enough for some Nevada Republicans to take a stand against Angle.

State Sen. Dean Rhoads, a Republican who pitched his support to Reid last week, did so in large part because he said he didn’t want to see the reins of the U.S. Senate handed over to a “liberal from New York City.”

“You may not like everything Harry Reid stands for, but I can guarantee you that Chuck Schumer cannot find Elko or Ely on a map,” Rhoads wrote in his endorsement of Reid.

Nor does either man seem inclined to watch out for Nevada’s interests the way Reid has.

For that reason, the Angle effect of turning the Senate leadership more liberal doesn’t just concern matters of lofty ideology. It also hits home on several niche issues that affect Nevada.

On issues like mining, and especially Yucca Mountain, Reid actually broke from his party, and as leader, prevented initiatives widely supported by Democrats from moving forward.

Of particular note is the ongoing debate over what to do with the byproducts of nuclear energy — an increasingly important energy investment area for senators representing large metropolises like Chicago and New York City. While Obama promised during his campaign to keep Yucca Mountain nuclear-free, many lawmakers who support the project have speculated that he’s done so mostly as a favor to Reid.

“Obama is seeking to kill Yucca Mountain before it opens not because it is good for the American people, but because it is good for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,” wrote Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, who is the ranking member on the House’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, in an op-ed piece that ran in the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call last year.

With Reid gone, it’s possible that Obama could bend on his position as a favor to another, closer senator — especially if that senator pushes the point.

Perhaps nobody is closer to Obama than Durbin, the senior half of the Illinois Senate delegation during Obama’s years in the Senate.

While Durbin shares Nevadans’ concerns about nuclear transport — Chicago is, after all, one of the most congested rail transportation hubs in the country — he has testified in the past that he does support Yucca Mountain as a final nuclear repository, once secure transportation routes are in place.

“Everyone agrees that we need to find a safe and permanent way to store this material,” he said in an op-ed piece that ran in the Chicago Tribune in 2002. “We should move forward with making Yucca Mountain the central repository for our nation’s nuclear waste.”

Illinois has 11 active nuclear reactors, five of which are near Chicago, and New York has six — all of which produce waste that needs to be transported .

That’s why Durbin “if anything, would be for Yucca,” said Eric Herzik, a UNR professor. And, “I don’t think Schumer would say, ‘We have to remember Harry’s legacy and stop this thing,’ ” he added.

Durbin has also pushed back against Reid when it comes to hard-rock mining, an area where Reid’s pro-industry position is more regularly in line with Republicans. In 1999, Durbin joined fellow Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts and Patty Murray of Washington to attempt to block an extension of the 1872 Mining Law that had been proposed by Republicans. Eventually it was Reid, along with Alaskan Republican Ted Stevens, who circumvented the motion.

And in 2009, legislation was proposed, and backed by the Obama administration, to force mining companies to pay more royalties to the government. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the time, “There is a new administration in town, and we want to see the 1872 mining law reformed.”

But Reid has prevented any such bill from coming to a vote under his watch.

Democrats by and large support updating and stiffening regulations of the hard-rock mining industry, widely accepted to be one of the most environmentally unfriendly areas of the mining industry. But of the states where hard-rock mining takes place — mostly in the Intermountain West and Alaska — there are few Democratic representatives. In fact, aside from senators from Montana, Reid is the only Democrat to represent the Intermountain West, and Mark Begich — a first-termer — is from Alaska.

Even with similar voting records, there are differences. Durbin is the more experienced choice: as majority whip — a position Reid also held in the party before graduating to its top Senate spot — he’s had experience managing the floor and working with complex and oftentimes arcane procedure.

“He’s like Reid in that he’s cautious and careful ... and kind of an easygoing guy with a sense of humor,” said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “Schumer’s more the type likely to get a brilliant idea in the shower and walk into the office in the morning and try to exercise a bold stroke. He’s going to be a little more unpredictable.”

Durbin also would fall more in line, personality-wise, with the march of past majority leaders, a list that is more or less devoid of dominating dynamos. Preceding Reid, they were: Tom Daschle, George Mitchell, Robert Byrd.

“A lot of it has to do with sharing spotlight. Senators love to be in the limelight … and Reid gives other senators the opportunity to be out in front,” Baker said. “That’s something I think Dick Durbin is better at than Schumer.”

But Schumer has the power of success, having served as Democratic Senatorial Committee chairman when the party took over the majority, a process that has made him close to many newer lawmakers in the caucus.

As close as they are to Reid, neither Durbin nor Schumer has shown himself willing to undercut him while his seat is still in play.

Durbin, who told reporters this week that “I feel good” about Reid’s chances of winning, has in fact rolled up his sleeves and aided his beleaguered senator, holding fundraisers in Chicago and Washington, D.C., campaigning for Reid in Nevada — he was here Friday — and donating $10,000 from his own political action committee to Reid’s campaign, as well as $5,000 to the Nevada Democratic Party.

Schumer's donations to the Nevada Democratic Party have come directly from his personal campaign account, which so far have amounted to more than $250,000, an impressive figure. He's expected to match that with a similarly sized contribution in the remaining days before the election.

In the case of a Reid loss, however, it may not take long for whatever angling has been going on behind the scenes to reveal itself, or at least for the heirs apparent to make their pitches for support. Reid, after all, did the same when Daschle lost in 2004.

Some speculate that either Durbin or Schumer would be a better choice to lead than the un-electric Reid, especially if the senior senator barely ekes out a victory. But absent a revolt by voters in Nevada, it’s unlikely that Reid will face a reckoning.

“Harry Reid hasn’t been a drag on other Democratic senators the way Nancy Pelosi has been on Democratic House members,” said Ross Baker, an expert on Congress and professor at Rutgers University. “And whatever Sharron Angle may say about him, you don’t find Republican challengers in other states making a big deal about Harry Reid.”

CORRECTION: This story originally reported Schumer had not contributed directly to Reid’s campaign from his fund, but had donated to national Democratic organizations helping to fund Reid’s campaign. It was changed to note that Schumer has made donations of more than $250,000 to the Nevada Democratic Party from his personal campaign account. | (October 29, 2010)

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