Nevada’s Senate race could not get much bigger. It is the only real chance Republicans have to flip a Democratic seat. The outcome could seal control of the Senate.
For those who have followed the intrigue of recent campaign cycles, it is riveting for another reason. The battle to choose a successor to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the retiring Senate minority leader, is pitting Reid and his home-state political operation against his archenemies, Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialist brothers who Reid has spent the past few years denouncing as the avatars of dark-money politics.
This is an epic proxy war, with Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat and a former Nevada attorney general, and Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, serving as surrogates in a clash to see who gets the last word in this brutal rivalry.
Both sides, as they say around the Texas Hold ’Em tables in America’s gambling capital, are all in.
“I am going to do everything I can do to prevail, to help her prevail,” Reid said in an interview at his home in Henderson as he takes on a more visible role in the Senate fight.
For their part, leaders of the Koch network, which has at least four separate groups working to defeat Cortez Masto, do not disguise the fact that they would sorely like to knock off Reid’s chosen successor to exact a bit of revenge and to help Republicans hold the Senate.
“It would certainly be poetic justice to see Harry Reid, who for so long has waged an unhinged personal vendetta against people we care a lot about, to see his seat go to someone who supports limited government, free speech,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-aligned group mounting an extensive ground game against Cortez Masto.
With polls showing the Nevada race close, Reid has become caustic with his own speech when it comes to the Kochs and their preferred candidate, Heck, a three-term House member and a former state lawmaker.
Reid, who for years has taken to the Senate floor to assail the Kochs for taking advantage of campaign finance laws to covertly funnel money into defeating Democrats, seems more than willing to go on the attack for Cortez Masto, who chooses her own words very carefully.
While receiving an award last week from a group whose leadership praised him for “holding the Koch brothers accountable,” Reid declared that the goal of the Kochs and their allies was to turn the United States into an oligarchy with a chosen few running the nation for their personal benefit.
“They want to make sure that they pick the next Supreme Court justices,” said Reid.
And he lashed out at Heck for being behind an advertising campaign that blamed Cortez Masto for a rise in violent crime even though the state attorney general in Nevada has little to do with local law enforcement.
“Heck is an absolute stooge for these right-wing nut cases,” Reid said.
The Heck camp dismisses Reid’s comments as over-the-top criticism that will backfire with Nevada voters already familiar with House member. They say the combative tone reflects Reid’s rising fear about losing the seat, which could be interpreted as a rejection of his 30-year career in the Senate.
“It is clear that in terms of both outside help and fundraising that Harry Reid is calling in every favor and connection he has and that this is about continuing his legacy,” said Brian Baluta, a spokesman for Heck.
The Heck campaign is eager to link Cortez Masto to Reid, and at times it can be hard to tell from its Twitter feeds whether it is running against her or Reid.
Baluta is correct that outside groups are boosting Cortez Masto, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Senate Majority PAC, a group run by Democrats with connections to Reid that has spent nearly $2.5 million on ads against Heck.
But Heck is getting help from outside the state as well. Freedom Partners Action Fund, which relies on considerable Koch funds, reports that it has spent more than $4.5 million against Cortez Masto. Concerned Veterans for America, another part of the Koch network, earlier ran more than $700,000 in ads on behalf of Heck, a military veteran.
Mark Holden, the chairman of Freedom Partners and general counsel to Koch Industries, said the Koch network is backing Heck because he supports policies that will “help drive a free and open society.”
“This will be a welcome change from the petty bitterness of Sen. Reid, and the divisive and harmful policies that he favored, which Ms. Masto also supports,” Holden said.
As for the ground game, Americans for Prosperity has three offices in the state, plans on opening a fourth and intends to marshal hundreds of volunteers to go door to door to reach out to voters identified as being open to opposing Cortez Masto.
“Our Number 1 goal is to educate voters on her record,” said Adam Jones, the state director of the group.
The Libre Initiative, another group partially funded by Freedom Partners, is for the first time actively opposing a candidate and hopes to mobilize Hispanic voters against Cortez Masto in a race where the Latino vote will be crucial. The stance means the organization formed to promote economic opportunity for Latinos will be trying to defeat the woman who would be the first Latina elected to the Senate.
“A big-spending, big-government Latina is still a big-spending, big-government liberal,” said Dan Garza, the executive director of the group.
Heck is generally seen as having a slight edge in the race at the moment and is being helped by the fact that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee who was endorsed by Heck, has not fallen as far in Nevada as he has in other swing states.
Reflecting Democratic concern, some Reid staff members, including Kristen Orthman, his communications director, are being dispatched to the state party to bolster the final Democratic push.
Reid, who concedes he can sometimes be “harsh” in his comments, remains confident that Democrats will hold his seat. And he takes pride in the fact that it is such a target of the Kochs.
“I think people are not only identified by their friends but also their enemies,” said Reid, who promised to stay as aggressive in protecting his seat as he been in his long-running feud with the Kochs.
“Say what you want about me — and people do — but as my dad said, ‘If you do something, don’t do it half-assed,’ ” Reid said. “Just do it.”