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Is Harry Reid Going Down?

Like the young Julius Caesar--who confidently boasted, while languishing helpless and imprisoned by pirates on an island, that he would soon crucify his own captors--the embattled Senate Republicans, who haven’t won a single seat from Democrats in two election cycles, are already dreaming of taking the biggest prize of all in 2010: Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Jon Cornyn, the newly-minted chief of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, reportedly wants to make Reid, who’s up for re-election, one of his prime targets; the RNC is panting after him, too. And just last week, Research 2000 for Daily Kos released a Nevada poll that seemed to suggest this GOP fantasy might not be such a pipe dream. At 54 percent disapproval, Reid’s negatives appear to be dangerously high. Should Republicans break out the pitchforks? Should Democrats (other than Markos Moulitsas, who appears to be as eager to whack Reid as any Freeper) fret that Harry Reid could soon meet Tom Daschle’s dismal fate?

It all depends, obviously, on how the newly all-Democratic regime fares over the next two years, but right now the answer is: probably not. Those who believe Reid is in real trouble are behaving as though Reid’s 2010 race will be a national one, some kind of British-style referendum on his general image, which--owing to his Bush-era role as a partisan lightning rod and his friendship with Pelosi, the gorgon from San Francisco--is far from gleaming. But no matter how much national GOP money pours in (and Reid will benefit from his own, more-than-equal stream of outside dollars), this is a Nevada race, and you have to consider the quality of the forces that actually have do battle with him. Of the four Republican politicians in Nevada who could most plausibly run against Reid in 2010, one (Representative Dean Heller) is widely believed to be eyeing the governor’s seat instead, two (State Senator Joe Heck and Representative Jon Porter) just lost their own, dinkier offices on November 4, and the fourth (Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki) took the opportunity last week to inform the Nevada public that he is about to be indicted.

Porter’s tale, in particular, illuminates the conditions of the Nevada state parties. An amiable, socially moderate Republican congressman who plays the keyboard in a bipartisan band, Porter was a Republican up-and-comer, and his loss last month had as much to do with a national anti-Republican tide as anything else. But, more oddly, three fringe candidates in Porter’s district--a John Bircher, a Libertarian, and, the most popular of all, an extreme Ron-Paul-style agitator who alleged the that government fluoridates the water supply to poison the American public into sheeplike docility--managed to capture almost 10 percent of the vote, double the margin by which Porter lost. What gives?

The vote reflected the bitter divisions among the Nevada Republicans. Just six years ago, says University of Nevada-Reno politics professor Eric Herzik (himself a Republican), the GOP controlled every statewide office in Nevada, while the Democratic Party was in such pathetic shape that they ran a man affectionately known as Wild Bill Hamma for attorney general. “That’s how he showed up on the ballot--‘Wild Bill’!” remembers Herzik, laughing with pleasure. Starting with the replacement of their Reno-area party chairman, though, the Democratic Party began to reorganize, while the Republicans--proving that there’s nothing like a good dose of power to ignite infighting--turned on each other. Libertarian-minded Republicans sniped at socially conservative California transplants and vice versa; by this spring, the intra-party chaos had gotten so bad that grassroots Ron Paul devotees literally overran the April state nominating convention. As if the news stories themselves--“Ron Paul Backers Outmaneuver Nevada GOP Establishment,” read one headline--weren’t humiliating enough, the Republican Convention Committee took pains to announce that it was “deeply troubled by the ineptness of the state party.”

And when it rained for the Nevada GOP, it poured. Its other rising star, Governor Jim Gibbons, turned out to be more Slick Willie than party savior when he was accused of assaulting a cocktail waitress, photographed embracing a different woman at a rodeo, and revealed to have a fetish for text-messaging females late at night on his state-owned BlackBerry. “I can’t tell you how bad it is,” moans Chuck Muth, a Republican operative based in Carson City. “[Gibbons] wants to blame the liberal media for his problems, but these were self inflicted. The liberal media did not text-message a woman who was not his wife 860 times in one month!”

A humiliating revolt by the Paultards, a text-message stalker for a political leader--it’s no wonder the Republicans were too disorganized and demoralized to counter the now-rebuilt Nevada Democrats’ unbelievable voter-registration efforts, which turned the Republicans’ slight voter-registration edge in 2006 into a 110,000-voter advantage for Democrats by Election Day this year. In poor Jon Porter’s district alone, Democrats registered nearly 50,000 new voters. “They were organizing Nevada and registering new voters to a degree we’ve never seen in state history,” marvels Sig Rogich, the state’s GOP kingmaker. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The poor field of challengers, the Nevada GOP’s implosion, the state Democratic Party’s organization and infrastructure, and Reid’s own savvy political maneuvering--he got rid of one rival in 2005 by helping get him appointed a federal judge--led every Republican I talked to in Nevada to downplay the chances of a serious Harry Reid challenge in 2010. “It’s too early really to say, but I’m skeptical about the Republican Party’s ability to field a [good] candidate,” shrugs Rogich.

But Muth, the Carson City activist, does have an idea, one so crazy he thinks it just might work. “What if you run Jim Gibbons?” he muses. This plan has at least one clear benefit: It would get Gibbons, who’s also up for re-election in 2010, out of the governor’s race to make room for a less tarnished Republican. Beyond that, says Muth, “The spin docs would have to create the messaging, but you could make the case something like this: Jim Gibbons is probably better as a member of a legislature than as a chief executive. As governor, maybe he wasn’t so great, but as a U.S. senator, hey, he fits in perfectly with that Washington crowd!”

You never know what can happen in two years. In his time, Caesar did turn the tables on his pirate captors. But if “We’re Dirty Enough For Washington” is the best slogan the Nevada GOP can come up with for their 2010 Senate effort, I think that tells you what you need to know about the likely danger to Harry Reid.

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic.