Is Reid Better Off Than He Was a Week Ago?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 16, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

The post-Nevada primary chorus was loud and clear last week after former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle won the GOP Senate primary and the right to face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in November.

Everyone seems to think that Reid is measurably better off now than he was before the primary and that he now has a 50-50 chance of winning another term. Everyone but me.

Unfortunately for me, it looks as if my opinion of Reid has changed because my newsletter now has the race rated as Tossup/Tilt Republican instead of Lean Takeover, which it was previously.

But until this week, we used a Tossup/Tilt category only in rating House races, not Senate contests. In choosing to make the Rothenberg Political Report House and Senate rating categories identical, we adopted the House categories for Senate races as well, which means introducing Tossups that tilt to each party as well.

Had we had a Tossup/Tilt Republican category available to us six months ago, we probably would have had Reid in that category rather than putting him in Lean Takeover. But we didn’t have that option, and we didn’t think he had anything close to an even chance of being re-elected, so we had to move him to Lean Takeover. So that’s where he landed.

In putting Reid into the new Tossup/Tilt Republican category, we are reiterating our view that the Senate Majority Leader is in a very competitive contest and that he is more likely than not to lose his bid for a fifth term.

But Reid obviously has the resources — and now a potentially vulnerable target in Angle — to change the likely outcome of the race, so it bears watching.

Still, I don’t believe that last week’s primary fundamentally changes the Nevada Senate race. I don’t believe that the race is a pure Tossup.

It was clear even before the Senate primary rolled around that Silver State Republicans wouldn’t be nominating a tested, charismatic, politically safe candidate against Reid.

None of the three “top” Republicans — Angle, former state Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden and two-time unsuccessful candidate Danny Tarkanian — had the kind of profile, experience and obvious savvy to compete against Reid in a neutral environment.

Lowden, who was once thought to be the GOP’s “best” candidate, turned out to be less than compelling. And, as national Republican strategists point out quite fairly, if she couldn’t beat Angle for the nomination, how was she going to beat Reid?

If Angle wins, she wouldn’t be the first flawed hopeful to make it to the Senate, even from Nevada. In 1982, Chic Hecht (R) defeated Sen. Howard Cannon (D), even though the Almanac of American Politics described Hecht as “short, speaks with a squeaky voice and a lisp, and is anything but a brilliant phrasemaker.”

Given all of these considerations, Angle’s primary victory doesn’t dramatically alter Reid’s prospects for the fall.

Reid continues to run poorly in polling, and as long as the general election is about him, President Barack Obama and jobs, the Senate Majority Leader will be in deep trouble.

Polling for the past year has generally shown Angle and Lowden running about equally well against Reid. In a June 1-3 Mason-Dixon poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Angle (and Tarkanian) actually led Reid while Lowden trailed.

Two surveys conducted right before the Nevada primary showed Reid ahead of Angle: a May 31-June 2 Research 2000 poll for the liberal website Daily Kos and a May 24-26 Mason-Dixon poll for the Review-Journal. Assuming that those surveys are accurate, they may well have reflected the attacks of each of the candidates against the others — and the short-term fallout that occurred from them.

But as readers of this column know, it’s Reid’s numbers that matter most, not Angle’s. And Reid’s numbers still look terrible to any dispassionate observer.

Reid has been drawing 38 percent to 43 percent on the ballot test against Angle for months, and he has been in that range in ballot tests against almost any of his possible GOP opponents.

In the June Review-Journal Senate poll, Reid’s name identification was 35 percent favorable/52 percent unfavorable — about where it has been for months, and roughly where then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) was six months before he was defeated for re-election.

The chances of Reid improving his own standing are small. He’s simply been around too long to do that, especially given his recent position as Senate Majority Leader and his role in advancing the president’s agenda in a midterm election year.

That means Reid’s only alternative is to drive up Angle’s negatives, ultimately making her unacceptable and sneaking to victory as the lesser of two evils (or three, given the presence of a tea party candidate on the ballot).

That’s definitely possible (North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms did that in his comeback victory over Democratic challenger Jim Hunt in 1984, though Helms started making his move on TV and in the polls in 1983 and had pulled ahead by the fall of 1984). But there are far more examples of that strategy failing.

It will be difficult for Reid to make the election about Angle, whose demeanor doesn’t seem scary to voters, than about Obama, the unpopular Congress, the economy and the Democratic agenda. And that’s why Harry Reid is still more likely than not to lose.