Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Publicly, Nevada’s most powerful Democrat, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, is remaining neutral in the primary between state Sen. Ruben Kihuen and former Rep. Dina Titus for the 1st Congressional District.
Reid’s spokesman Zac Petkanas confirmed that last week.
“He’s neutral,” Petkanas said. “At this point, he’s not going to endorse (someone) in the Democratic primary.”
Behind the scenes, however, it’s a different story: Kihuen is clearly Reid’s favored candidate.
Reid’s political allies have quietly reached out to contributors to convey the Senate majority leader’s preference, and his people have expressed, again quietly, gratitude to those who have publicly backed Kihuen.
Perhaps the most public sign is that those who helmed Reid’s 2010 campaign are now working Kihuen’s race, including one of his closest former advisers, Jon Summers; his notable pollster, Mark Mellman, and his former political director, Megan Jones.
The one exception is Brandon Hall, Reid’s 2010 campaign manager, whose new firm is handling Titus’ media strategy. (Ironically, Hall worked with Reid’s folks to recruit Titus into a last-minute race against Jon Porter in 2008. Titus won.)
The question now is: How strongly will Reid work behind the scenes? Will he attempt to finesse Titus out of the race? Will he and his people go full-bore against her?
Or will he continue to work behind the scenes and maintain the appearance of neutrality?
Those who know Reid well say any of those scenarios is possible.
Indeed, Reid has taken each of those approaches to influence races in the past. If he can’t prevent them from occurring in the first place, Reid has been known to be calculating when it comes to his party’s primaries.
In 2006, he quietly supported Democrat and former Henderson Mayor James Gibson in the gubernatorial primary against Titus, but publicly remained neutral. Insiders say he did little meddling in that race. Titus had a devoted base and was always favored to win. Aggravating her base wasn’t in Reid’s best interest.
In 2008, Reid remained conspicuously neutral when then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were battling for the presidential nomination. Publicly, he said preserving the importance of Nevada’s third-in-the-nation primary contest was more important than choosing sides in the race.
Later, the book “Game Change” revealed Reid was one of the first Democrats to recruit Obama to run for president. Reid ultimately endorsed him in June 2008.
More recently, Reid abandoned finesse to oust Las Vegas businessman Byron Georgiou from the U.S. Senate primary against U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, using his influence to dry up Georgiou’s campaign contributions and criticizing him publicly.
But the terrain is different for Reid when it comes to Titus and Kihuen.
Berkley has been a longtime ally of Reid’s. Georgiou was a political newcomer in Nevada with no real following in the state.
The opposite is true of Kihuen and Titus.
Reid’s affinity for Kihuen is both personal — Kihuen has been a loyal foot soldier in Democratic politics — and strategic — his candidacy will likely drive Hispanic turnout, which could be key to victories for Obama and Berkley next year.
With control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, a Berkley victory would help Reid hold onto his position as majority leader.
But Titus has a loyal base within the Democratic Party that Reid doesn’t want to antagonize.
“It’s likely to be a tight race,” said Democratic strategist Dan Hart. “And people like Sen. Reid would be very careful about alienating either side by becoming too demonstrative in their support for either one.”
If Reid were to formalize support for Kihuen, he would likely wait until Kihuen proves himself an effective candidate.
For her part, Titus said neither Reid nor his top lieutenants have urged her to pass on the primary with Kihuen.
“I have a very good relationship with the senator,” Titus said. “He supported me in Congress. He’s been a friend for a long time. I haven’t gotten any calls from the White House or anybody saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get out of this race.’”