NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Harry Reid says the public knows plenty about Donald Trump, and there’s nothing he could do to make the presumptive GOP nominee more unpopular than he already is.
So rather than becoming the Trump attack dog, as he was against Mitt Romney four years ago, Reid sees his charge as something different this time: to make Mitch McConnell and Senate GOP incumbents eat Trump’s endless stream of divisive statements.
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It’s the key, the outgoing Democratic leader said in an extensive interview with POLITICO here Wednesday, to returning the Senate to his party’s control — the final, legacy-making fight of his three-decade Senate career.
“It’s easy to do: The Senate leadership is enthralled by Trump. ‘He’s the guy. He’s going to carry on the standards of the Republican Party.’ Wow,” Reid said in the dingy campaign headquarters of House candidate Ruben Kihuen. “My job is to tell the people that Mitch McConnell is one of the reasons we have Trump. … Everything that Trump is, McConnell led the charge.”
McConnell and Trump are “cuddled up together,” Reid added, citing the Republican leader’s comment this week that Trump would be “just fine” as president.
Plainly energized by the looming battle for the White House and control of the Senate, a feisty Reid touched on a range of topics, from Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of Nevada’s largest newspaper to Bernie Sanders’ refusal to concede the Democratic nomination.
Reid predicted that Hillary Clinton will shrug off party divisions once she finally secures the nomination and squares off against Trump, whom he called a “Kentucky Derby” long shot for the presidency.
“I don’t think he can win. I would feel sad for my family, the country,” Reid said. “That’s a hypothetical, a nightmare I can’t accept. As much as I disliked George Bush the second, I would never have a nightmare about it.”
But with Sanders holding on until the last primary (and possibly beyond), and Trump gaining steam in polls, Republicans say Reid is misreading the landscape. Some even predict Trump will win Nevada in November, with his working-class appeal to the state’s service-industry workers.
That could propel Republican Rep. Joe Heck to a win against former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto in the race to replace the retiring Reid, they say.
“I would expect Trump would carry Nevada,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.
Reid is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. In Nevada, more than perhaps any other state, he argued, demographics are destiny. And the Silver State, with its influx of Latinos and rapidly changing population overall, is approaching a point at which white voters will make up less than half the population.
But powerful forces are lined up against Reid. Adelson is now behind Trump, and aides to the billionaire casino magnate are in talks to launch a pro-Trump super PAC with top GOP consultants.
Asked about Adelson’s influence, Reid paused to soak in the question as a broad smile crossed his face: “Donald Trump’s going to need more than Sheldon Adelson. Nevada’s a Democratic state.”
Reid also weighed in on the Adelson family’s purchase this year of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper. Reid has feuded with the paper’s conservative editorial board for much of his political career, and he called Adelson immediately after learning of the sale.
“Sheldon, doesn’t matter what you do with the editorial policy, it couldn’t be any worse … Secondly, hire some reporters,” Reid recounted telling Adelson, searching for a copy of the newspaper to demonstrate how thin it is. “It’s terrible, and you know what? We have a lot going on here. So, I’m glad he bought it.”
In addition to his war on the Senate GOP, Reid has been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to guide Sanders away from a conflict this July at the Democratic National Convention. He’s spoken with the Vermont senator about the unruly conduct of his supporters at Nevada’s Democratic convention last month, declared that Sanders has no path to the nomination and done just about everything but call on Sanders to leave the race.
He again declined to tell Sanders to shut it down on Wednesday — but dismissed the senator’s wishful view that he can still win the nomination.
“It’s math. You can’t play around with it. He’s going to lose. He doesn’t have the delegates,” Reid said.
Fellow Democrats see Reid’s scrappy, spontaneous style of politics as a boon as they take on the freewheeling Trump, especially given Clinton’s hypercaution.
“He’s got a spine of steel. He is the most low-key political pugilist that I’ve ever encountered. He speaks softly, but he really is looking to punch you right in the nose,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who voted against Reid as Democratic leader after the 2014 elections. “Certainly he’ll be missed, maybe not by Mitch McConnell.”
Reid and McConnell tried to have a kumbaya moment at the end of 2015, coming to the Senate floor to proclaim their respect for each other after POLITICO reported on their fraying relationship. But the leaders are once again butting heads on a practically daily basis, even as they seem to have found a measure of cooperation on spending bills.
Asked to respond to Reid’s repeated linkage of McConnell to Trump on Wednesday, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said that “given all the problems at home and abroad, you’d think maybe Sen. Reid would want to spend at least part of his time” on the economy, national security and health care.
Indeed, their rough-and-tumble relationship has again become the talk of the clubby chamber. Reid came to the Senate floor in April to accuse McConnell of not keeping his word on confirming a Federal Communications Commission member. Though they’ve spoken about the matter since, it remains unresolved.
Even more notable: McConnell’s new book says that Reid has a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality,” one man behind closed doors and another in front of the cameras.
Reid reiterated that he found McConnell’s remarks “classless” in the interview. He said he has no intention of reading the book.
“Why should I? No, I know enough about him,” Reid said of McConnell, before pivoting to election mode. “He, more than any other one person, is responsible for Donald Trump.”