An aide attaches a microphone as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sits down for a news conference in his office at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 22, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

‘Tough S.O.B.’ Harry Reid faces biggest test yet

Updated

Badly injured, Harry Reid’s political future was left for dead. 

It was early 2009, and the Senate Democratic Leader was reeling from the revelation that he praised Barack Obama’s “light skin” and lack of a “Negro dialect.” Polls showed Reid going to the way of his predecessor, Tom Daschle, who lost reelection in 2004, as the Nevadan faced revolt both at home and in Washington, and on both the right and left. Just a third Nevadans said they would vote in 2010 to re-elect Reid, whose unpopularity was seen as dragging down even his son’s career.

And yet Reid, a former police officer and boxer who survived a mafia-backed bombing attempt as Nevada’s gaming commissioner, held on. He always has.

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But today, Reid’s enemy may be more powerful than Republicans or even the mob. As the 75-year old goes into surgery Monday for an injury that may cost him vision in one eye, he’ll have to decide if he’s up for yet another uphill fight of a reelection campaign in 2016.

Just a few days before Reid was due back in Washington to surrender his gavel to arch-rival Mitch McConnell this month, he added injury to the insult of the November election when he fell badly while working out at home in Nevada. He broke six ribs and badly damaged his right eye, which will be operated on at George Washington University hospital in Washington Monday, where doctors hope to help the senator retain vision in his eye.

Reid skipped last week’s State of the Union address and the earlier swearing-in ceremonies for new members of the Senate, along with many of the chamber’s first votes of the year, raising questions about his fitness to continue to lead his caucus this session, let alone wage another grueling reelection bid next year.

But he’s making efforts to show he is still working and in charge of his caucus – if no longer the Senate – spending hours on the phone with his caucus members and showing off his eye patch in a video released by his office. He told reporters last week that he’s pushing ahead with plans to run again. “Everything’s online. We’re off and running,” he said. “At this stage I’m fully intending to run.”

Those who know him say it will take more than a spill to knock Reid out of politics. “This is Harry Reid,” said Josh Orton, a former Reid spokesperson. “Anyone who knows his story knows a whack in the eye isn’t going to slow him down.”

Inside his sprawling political and legislative operations on Capitol Hill, Reid’s staff are continuing to operate under the assumption that he’s running again, and senator has personally indicated as much to aides. He’s started planning a series of fundraisers for a bid, his campaign committee has been ramping up its emails to supporters, and he looks ready to tap a campaign manager soon.

He even recently sold his house in his hometown of Searchlight to move to Las Vegas, in part so that he could be closer to his campaign team and political power base. “I’ve got a re-election coming up. I’ve been through a few elections commuting from Searchlight and it’s hard, so this will make that part of it much easier,” the senator said in a video announcing the move in June.

If anything, some close to Reid say, the injury might the famously defiant Democrat even more eager to run again.

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Reid’s toughness is legendary among his staff and the large diaspora of former aides and allies that populate Washington. In addition to the boxing, brushes with the mob and his stint with the Capitol Police, there was the time he was hospitalized for working too hard in 2013, and the time he survived a serious car crash the year before. Growing up in a desert shack without running water or electricity, a 14-year-old Reid and his brother pinned down their father to force him to stop beating their mother.

Nearly every reelection has been a brush with death for Reid, with nail biting campaigns that end in victories with the slimmest of margins. Jim Manley, another former spokesperson, said Reid gets a “certain satisfaction” from the doubters and will not be daunted by the injury or questions it raises.

“He’s one tough S.O.B.,” Manley said. “I can’t tell you how much he looks forward to having another close race where people are going to be betting heavily against him.”

Compared the midyear election of 2010, the presidential election in 2016 will give Reid the wind at his back, with higher turnout expected among key Democratic constituencies like Latinos and young people.

But that benefit could be far outweighed by the presence of a more serious challenger. Thanks to the tea party wave, some clever offsides maneuvering on Reid’s part, and healthy dose of luck, his 2010 opponent was Sharron Angle, a deeply flawed neophyte candidate with a fondness for “second amendment remedies” and telling rape victims to turn “a lemon situation into lemonade.

Even so, it was no cake walk. A crack team of some of the smartest Democratic minds in the country eked out a legendary upset of a win. The American Association of Political Consultants named Reid’s top 2010 strategist, Rebecca Lambe, campaign manager of the year, while his pollster Mark Mellman, takes pride in predicting Reid could win the race when few in Washington agreed. They might return again, along with longtime advisor Susan McCue.

But this time, Reid is likely to face off against Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, a young, moderate Latino rising star. Reid fought proxy battle with Sandoval in 2014 over the lieutenant governor race and lost.

In Washington, meanwhile, where Reid will recover from his surgery at his apartment in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Georgetown, the Senate leader has faced some opposition from within his own caucus. Five moderate Democrats voted against him for minority leader this month, even though the election – and thus the need to distance themselves from the politically toxic Reid – was over.

When it comes to whipping votes, Reid often employs a light touch and lets his caucus members vote how they need to. But now in the minority, he’ll need unity in his caucus more than ever to maximize what leverage they still hold. If moderate democrats switch sides, it could give Republicans bipartisan cover for the bills and make Reid look weak. At the same time, he’ll have to contend with an emboldened liberal wing led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

And he’ll have to do that while healing from a debilitating injury and securing his own political future.

But maybe the only thing tougher than Harry Reid is Harry Reid wearing an eye patch.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the hotel where Reid lives in Washington. It’s the Ritz-Carlton, not the Four Seasons.

Harry Reid and Senate Democrats

'Tough S.O.B.' Harry Reid faces biggest test yet

Updated