It wasn't long after her appearance on the national stage that statements from Sen. Harry Reid's general election opponent, Sharron Angle, helped paint the former Nevada state lawmaker as not just conservative but perhaps also kooky and paranoid. For her assertion that "the nation is arming . . . to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways, " a New York Times editorial over the weekend credited her with "some of the most offensive and inciteful [statements] to be heard in this year's welter of extremist alarums." The national GOP has rushed in to polish Angle's image. To a contingent of Washington reporters who wanted to know why Angle wouldn't take their questions, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair John Cornyn said she needed a few weeks "to get staffed up and prepared."
It seemed like a lucky break for Reid, whose home-state approval ratings haven't seen the bright side of 40 percent in years. "He must feel like it's Christmas," analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Beltway conventional wisdom that had written Reid off for dead has had to be hastily revised. Within a week of Angle's primary win, a Politico headline pronounced, "Election hopes give Reid new life as leader."
In fact, luck had very little to do with it. But Reid had everything to do with it. He spent years clearing the field by enticing, bullying, and manipulating the strong potential Republican candidates into opting out. The dean of the Nevada political press corps, television host and columnist Jon Ralston, frequently refers to Reid as the state's "Meddler-in-Chief," because nearly everything that happens in the Silver State bears his fingerprints.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in the race to run against him. It belies the common perception of him as a bumbling, mush-mouthed, accidental leader. By reputation, he is no Lyndon B. Johnson or even Rahm Emanuel: The Washington Post's David Broder called him "a continuing embarrassment thanks to his amateurish performance" as majority leader. But the way he's engineered his current electoral situation shows that Harry Reid is no less a master of the inside game.
Reid had a hand in Angle's upset primary win in some obvious ways. His campaign aired ads and distributed opposition research slamming erstwhile front-runner Sue Lowden, a telegenic millionairess who yearned for the simpler times when country doctors could be paid in poultry. But the list of Reid casualties -- all of whom would have been dream candidates compared to Angle -- is much longer and stretches further back in time. There were those who lost their last elections, like former state Sen. Joe Heck, a moderate emergency-room doctor and army officer, and Rep. Jon Porter, a moderate former small-town mayor. Both suffered bruising campaigns in 2008 to Democrats encouraged by Reid and funded with Reid money. In an interview with me shortly after the 2008 election, Reid said he convinced his press secretary to run against Porter after Porter crossed him. "I would never have campaigned against him had he not turned on me," Reid said, adding, "I stayed out of his races totally until he decided he didn't want to be my friend."
There were those who found better offers, like Brian Sandoval, the state's charismatic Republican attorney general, nominated to a federal judgeship at Reid's recommendation. Sandoval later left the bench to run for governor, but not for Senate. Nevada's then-U.S. attorney, Greg Brower, a Bush appointee, mysteriously was asked to stay in his post by President Barack Obama right around the time many speculated that he was contemplating a Senate run.
And there were those who got spooked. By late 2008, the only big-name Republicans still considering the race were the state's innocuous lieutenant governor, Brian Krolicki, and the easygoing congressman from Reno, Rep. Dean Heller. Then Krolicki found himself under indictment by the state's Democratic attorney general. He bowed out, muttering darkly about a Reid plot to get him out of the race. Reid's camp denied involvement. The charges against Krolicki have since been thrown out.
In January 2009, Heller, despite being in only his second term, was named to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, giving him one more reason to stay where he was. He continued to flirt with a Senate run, but as Reid's war chest grew to intimidating proportions, Heller, too, finally shut the door last fall.
Reid, meanwhile, brought Obama to Las Vegas to share the stage with Bette Midler for a Reid fundraiser. Reid boasted about his plans to raise $25 million, a not-so-subtle signal that any victory against him would be pyrrhic -- the giant-killer limping across the finish line with soul bruised and reputation in tatters. In case that message wasn't clear, a Reid campaign adviser told Politico he would "vaporize" his opponent.
After Reid's work, what remained was a field of also-rans that local pundit Ralston took to calling "Snow White" -- Lowden -- "and the dwarves." In the end, there were 11 "dwarves" on the ballot, including Angle, whose last run for office was in a state Senate primary she lost.
This is the way you win an election if you are Harry Reid, a man determined to succeed in politics despite having no particular talent for making people like him. It has worked before: In 2004, he won his fourth Senate term with more than 60 percent of the vote and numerous Republican endorsements, defeating Richard Ziser, a Christian-values zealot seeking his first elected office. Ziser, the man behind Nevada's anti-gay-marriage amendment, got the nomination after several more qualified Republicans took a pass.
All the while that he's been winnowing the field against him, Reid has been building up his own formidable political machine. He has poured millions into the state Democratic Party and staffed it with world-class political talent. In the 2008 presidential race, campaign field workers helped sign up 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in a state that had been evenly split.
Maybe it's time to start seeing a pattern to Reid's lucky breaks over the years. He may not light up a room when he speaks, but he carries a list of favors requested and owed in his jacket pocket, and he never forgets. The brief controversy that ensued when Game Change authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin quoted Reid referring to Obama's lack of "Negro dialect" obscured what Reid was talking about: encouraging Obama to run for president at a time when Hillary Clinton looked like the inevitable nominee. It was a window into the way he pulls the strings in the Senate and in national politics -- the same way he does back home.