Harry Reid shook the political world last week by announcing he would not run for reelection. Reid, who many considered vulnerable regardless of whether he ran or not, has dominated Nevada politics since he was first elected in the 80’s. His strong base of union members and minorities has allowed him to survive close scares in 1998 when he won by a mere 328 votes and 2010 when he surprised many and dispatched Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle fairly easily.
Recent political events have not been kind to Harry Reid and Nevada Democrats in general. In 2012, despite Obama carrying the state Republican Dean Heller successfully held scandal plagued John Ensign’s Senate seat. In November of last year Democrats lost a Congressional seat and both chambers of the legislature to the GOP. The GOP took control of every statewide executive office as well. More worrisome to the party’s future prospects against the GOP’s best star in the state, Governor Brian Sandoval, Sandoval carried Hispanics in his reelection bid.
Worse, the Democratic Party experienced a mini-revolt against Reid when six of them voted against him for Minority Leader. Personally, Reid also has faced recovery issues after an accident on an elliptical machine at his home last winter. Still, in recent years high-profile statewide races have favored Democrats. Short of Sandoval and Heller, Republicans have struggled in the state, particularly in Presidential years.
Demographics appear likely to aid Democrats in 2016. In 2008 and 2012, Obama’s victories were fueled by the young, women and minorities. These groups are only growing as a share of the population. Meanwhile, upper income earners and whites that lean heavily towards GOP are shrinking as the state becomes more diverse. The GOP does not just have to contend with demographics but also the quality of their candidates.
Democrats know who their preferred Reid replacement is especially since Reid supports her, Former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. Democrats best former up and comer, Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, was crushed in her Lt. Governor bid in 2014. Locked out of statewide offices the party and Reid had to look to former officials with appeal to run. Masto fits all counts.
The GOP does not have any candidate as strong as Masto on the surface short of Sandoval. If the Governor did run the seat would definitely lean Republican if Masto ran. But in his absence the GOP is looking at new Lt. Governor Mark Hutchinson or Nevada Senate Leader Michael Roberson to run. Neither would have the appeal Masto does to the state’s Latino constituency.
Even with Reid retiring his specter will hang over the 2016 contest. Reid’s political coalition and ground game will heavily aid the eventual Democratic nominee. Further, the Presidential campaign is likely to boost Democratic turnout. This means Republicans must max out their turnout in rural areas of the state and make inroads with moderate and low-income voters in Washoe and Clark County. Still, the suburbs are where the battle for Senate will be won and lost. One of the reasons why Heller won in 2012 was he significantly outran Romney in Clark and Washoe Counties and he did so by coming close to parity in the suburbs. A repeat performance by Republicans is needed to win the seat in 2016.
Of course, turnout in 2016 could suffer without Obama at the top of the ticket. Turnout among Democrats dropped several percentage points between 2008 and 2010. Overall turnout dropped by almost 50% between 2012 and 2014. If the Democratic coalition is so dependent on having Obama at the top of the ticket Democrats could struggle to cobble together their coalition of the last two Presidential cycles.
Still, Democrats have to be considered a slight favorite in the race. Demographics and candidate ability at this early stage point to an ever so slight advantage for the incumbent party. However, that could change if the GOP gets their titan into the race. We’ll see.