Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Maybe Sen. Harry Reid is mortal after all.
The almost universally acknowledged master of Nevada politics, Reid and his lieutenants anoint candidates, eliminate contested primaries and, ultimately, win elections.
Few dare cross him.
So when Dina Titus, a former state senator and one-term congresswoman, decided, against Reid’s wishes, to run for the safest Democratic Congressional seat in Nevada, some observers were waiting for Titus to be pushed out. Instead, it was Reid’s favored candidate, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, who last week dropped his bid for the 1st District seat, where Democrats have a steep voter registration advantage.
Titus not only stood up to the Senate majority leader and lived to tell about it, but she also appears to have claim to a Congressional seat for as long as she wants it.
Here’s how she won.
Reid is sometimes compared to a chess master — competing against checkers players.
In this situation, Titus was well-positioned to resist Reid’s control of the political chessboard.
Last year, when Democrats began assembling their pieces to run for Congress, Reid’s perfect setup looked something like this:
• State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, a popular black politician would run in the new 4th Congressional District.
• In the 1st Congressional District, it would be Kihuen, a young, popular Latino who could help boost Hispanic turnout — key to Reid’s 2010 reelection — for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Members of Reid’s 2010 campaign team left to join the up and comer.
• Titus, the seasoned campaigner with an established constituency, would run against Republican Rep. Joe Heck in the 3rd Congressional District — the seat Titus held for one term, until Heck defeated her in 2010.
But after decades in politics, including an unsuccessful run for governor, Titus had long ago graduated from Democratic Party pawn.
Not only was she willing to defy her party’s most powerful player and say, “Not this time,” but she had a devoted constituency and donor base that would allow her to make such a stand.
The month before Kihuen announced his exit from the race, the path forward for him was growing increasingly grim.
Titus’ polling, which her campaign trumpeted to the media, showed her leading Kihuen by 66 points.
Then came fundraising totals: Kihuen had raised $179,000 in the same time it took Titus to raise $422,000. Kihuen’s tally included contributions from business leaders in mining, gaming and NV Energy — three of the biggest contributors in Nevada politics, each with strong ties to Reid.
Shortly after Kihuen’s disappointing fundraising numbers were finalized, his campaign team met to assess his progress. The team came equipped with Kihuen’s latest polling numbers, which were similar to Titus’ numbers. Kihuen was struggling to gain name recognition relative to Titus, who is well-known and well-liked in the district.
Kihuen could continue, he was told, but it would cost millions of dollars and require an intensely negative advertising barrage. Plus, Titus was already out-fundraising him 2-to-1.
Even pursuing that approach, victory would be difficult. Titus, 61, is already established in the district, and voters would be less receptive to the negative ads Kihuen might use against her, the poll numbers showed.
It appeared so difficult that all it took was a gentle nudge from Reid to withdraw, according to sources familiar with the situation.
“It became very clear the pathway to victory was narrow and would have required a very bloody process,” said one Democratic strategist. “It would’ve been very divisive for the party at a time we need to pull together.
“I think he just looked at the situation and he was very realistic about it.”
Kihuen, 31, was cognizant of his political future. He wasn’t willing to burn bridges with a negative campaign against Titus. Nor was he willing to risk a loss that could have hurt his prospects for the future.
“He is someone who everyone recognizes has a serious future in the party,” the strategist said.
So why couldn’t Reid pull it off for Kihuen?
First, Reid never made the decision to go all-in for Kihuen. He gave his blessing to Kihuen’s candidacy and made it known in political circles that he favored Kihuen over Titus.
But he wasn’t going to put his full muscle behind an unproven candidate.
“It just wasn’t his hill to die for,” said one candidate.
Reid never focused his full organization on pushing Titus out of the race, as he did to Byron Georgiou, a challenger of Rep. Shelley Berkley. In that case, labor allies attacked businesses Georgiou was associated with and Reid publicly questioned his ethics and role on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.
Titus told people she never received a call from Reid asking her to exit the race.
Reid also never strong-armed other groups, like the Culinary Union, to get on board with Kihuen. The union, which represents Strip hotel workers and is a key Reid ally, has had an ongoing feud with Kihuen since the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, when Kihuen endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Culinary endorsed Barack Obama.
Kihuen never met the benchmarks — perhaps most importantly in fundraising — that Reid’s people informally set for him.
Neither Titus nor Kihuen returned calls for comment.
Kihuen will return to the state Senate, where he can plan his next move. Titus, meanwhile, is likely to return to Congress.