WASHINGTON – Nevada,a state once regarded as the nation's “rotten borough,” will begin a new era as its Democratic senator,Harry Reid,takes over as majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
“It's a coming of age for the state,politically,” said Eric Herzik,a political science professor at the University of Nevada,Reno.
Rep. Shelley Berkley,D-Nev.,takes it a little further: “It is so huge and so important for the state of Nevada,it's akin to the parting of the Dead Sea.”
For the Silver State,often defined by vice not virtue,Reid's post could spell big things. Add in Sen. John Ensign's new role as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman,the new January 2008 Democratic presidential caucus and the state's national clout gains a few notches.
“It's more than just that temporary boost of power,” Herzik said. “There's a certain amount of legitimacy that now comes to Nevada.”
Reid,a mild-mannered miner's son from Searchlight,Nev.,will significantly shape the direction the U.S. takes for at least the next two years.
“If there's something he considers detrimental to Nevada,he can stop it,” said Jon Ralston,a Las Vegas political analyst.
Reid's No.1 issue,according to Herzik and Ralston,is Yucca Mountain,a controversial multi-billion dollar project outside Las Vegas where the nation's nuclear waste could be buried.
Legislation to fund the project's next step is now unlikely to make it to the Senate floor,Herzik said.
“That doesn't mean Yucca is dead,” he said. “But various alternatives that people maybe didn't want to bring up,I think,will start seeing some new light.”
Reid is known for getting things done on Capitol Hill. But it isn't because he's firebrand politician.
Berkley,a long-time friend of the 66-year-old senator,said Reid is better known for his savvy parliamentary skills,not his speaking.
She recalled a lunch in Las Vegas with Reid and two potential campaign donors during his 1970 bid to become Nevada's lieutenant governor. When she got home,her mother asked her how it went.
Berkley,then a sophomore at the University of Nevada,Las Vegas,wasn't optimistic.
“I said,‘I don't think Harry Reid has a chance to be lieutenant governor. He is so quiet,'” she said. “I've never met a quieter politician in my life.”
With a chuckle,Berkley said she was wrong about Reid,who won that race and was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986.
From renegade to national player
To put Nevada's newfound legitimacy into perspective,State Archivist Guy Rocha sums up the state's early political influence: “Inconsequential … an anomaly … a political aberration.”
Case in point: William Sharon,a Nevada senator from 1875 to 1881,who Rocha said helped sour the nation's attitude toward Nevada,earning it the moniker “rotten borough.”
“The common joke at the time was the only time he spent in Nevada was when he was taking the train from Washington to California” where he lived,Rocha said. Not to mention that Sharon's Senate attendance record reached only 1 percent.
“Nevada for the longest time had been a great rotten borough,” Rocha said. “It had been a very small state with some powerful senators,but still not a player in the political dynamic.”
And with its liberal divorce laws plus legalized prostitution and gambling,Nevada's reputation suffered,Rocha said.
But by the second half of the 20th century,Nevada politicians were making a larger mark on the nation.
Sens. Patrick A. McCarran,from 1933 to 1954,and Paul D. Laxalt,from 1974 to 1987,became household names in Nevada. Despite their clout within the state,both exerted their national influence behind the scenes.
McCarran,an anti-communist Democrat who rode the coattails of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1932 presidential win,was Sen. Joseph McCarthy's other half during the communist witch hunt of the 1950s.
“It probably should have called ‘McCarranism,' not McCarthyism,” Rocha said.
Before Laxalt,a Republican,beat a young Reid in the 1974 U.S. Senate race,he was Nevada's governor from 1967 to 1970. His close friend,Ronald Reagan,was California's governor at the same time.
Rocha said it was Laxalt who encouraged Reagan to run for chief executive.
Fast forward to 2006,and Nevada's national political influence is defined by two senators in highly visible leadership positions.
“We've gone from a backwater to the road to the White House goes through Nevada,” Rocha said.
The presidential path to 2008
That road is paved with a 2008 presidential caucus. Nevada becomes one of the first four states to help pick the Democratic nominee,with Jan. 19 caucuses,just after the Iowa caucuses and just before the New Hampshire primary. South Carolina follows with a primary Jan. 29.
It's something Reid heavily influenced.
“I played a very big role in it,” Reid said. “Howard Dean [the Democrats' national chair] and I worked closely together to make it happen. … I made a lot of phone calls in order to bring this to Nevada.”
Kirsten Searer,a spokeswoman for the Nevada State Democratic Party,said the senator's lobbying made a difference.
“It's safe to say it wouldn't have happened without Sen. Reid,” she said.
So why bring the caucus to Nevada? Democrats say it's because of the state's increasing Hispanic population – 23 percent of the state's 2.4 million residents – and growing union membership.
But Ralston said it could just mean candidates pay homage to Las Vegas – the state's most populous and diverse city – and make “cosmetic” stops in Republican-dominated rural areas. Clark County,which includes Las Vegas,voted for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 as both were losing the state.
“Nevada has been an important state and has contributed to the president's victories in 2000 and 2004,” said Zac Moyle,executive director of Nevada Republican Party. “We suspect it will continue to play significant role in electing Republicans to office.”
Republicans dominated the major races again this year,winning the governor's mansion,two competitive congressional races along with Ensign's easy re-election over Democrat Jack Carter,the former president's son. Berkley,a Democrat,won an easy re-election over Republican Kenneth Wegner.
But this year's election marked the first time Democrats gained any of the state's six constitutional offices,picking up four,and keeping a majority in the Nevada State Assembly and nearly taking the Senate.
Herzik said Nevada's trend of voting red in national elections could stop if Democrats put up a moderate candidate.
“It's a good window on the middle of American politics,” he said.
Reid's ascension to the top of the most exclusive club in the nation says a lot about Nevada,the fastest growing state in the nation for more than a decade – its population has doubled since 1990.
So as Reid takes over as majority leader and Ensign begins his quest to take that job away by electing a GOP majority in 2008,the nation will begin to get to know the real Nevada.
“For a state that is generally disdained or lampooned by everyone else in the country,to have their two senators in those types of positions,it's pretty impressive,” Ralston said.
Herzik said it tells of the changing times for the Silver State – a progression from its renegade past.
“We're the Wild West in the way that neon cowboy … is the Wild West,” he said,referring to the 40-foot sign that symbolizes downtown Las Vegas.
SHFWire reporter Kirsten Brown also contributed to this story.