The death of Harry Reid from pancreatic cancer on Tuesday, five years after his retirement follwing a 30-year career in the U.S. Senate, removed from this world one of those legendary figures whose life could have formed the plot of a pretty good western. He was Senate Democratic leader for 12 eventful years, from 2005 to 2017, a tenure that was accompanied by a steady rise in partisan polarization. Reid was an unapologetic and fiercely combative partisan without losing the respect of his many foes in Nevada and in Washington. Most of all, his life and career were testaments to the power of persistence in the face of adversity.
He was born into deep, Depression-era rural poverty in Nevada, the son of a hard-drinking miner and a laundress for casinos and bordellos. His home town of Searchlight had no high school, so he had to go live with relatives (sometimes hitchhiking home and back) to further his education. There, as fate would have it, he acquired a high-school boxing coach, Mike O’Callahan, who became his first and most important political patron. He also met his wife of 62 years, Landra. After college, Reid had his first stint in Washington, working his way through law school as a Capitol-police officer.
Harry Reid’s political rise in Nevada was fast but uneven. After a brief stint in the legislature, he was elected lieutenant governor (running on a ticket with O’Callahan) at the age of 30. But four years later, he narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race and then a mayoral contest in Las Vegas. O’Callahan gave him the chance at a political comeback by appointing him chair of the Nevada Gaming Commission, a gig that brought him into a close relationship with the casinos but also into conflict with the mob, which reportedly tried to kill him and his family on at least one occasion. By his late 30s, Reid had faced many tests of his skill and character. And then, when Nevada gained a new House district in 1982, he went to Washington for good. Four years later, Reid won the same U.S. Senate seat he had lost in 1974.
Reid was an obvious candidate for congressional leadership thanks to his extraordinary work ethic, his ideological flexibility, and his legislative ingenuity. He never saw any conflict in serving both his party and his state and became celebrated for his personal dealmaking in and beyond Washington to serve his twin interests (most famously saving Las Vegas’s massive CityCenter project by talking banks out of withdrawing financing). He was involved in myriad laws, regulations, and deals affecting Nevada’s natural resources and recreational areas, and all but single-handedly stopped the use of Yucca Mountain as a national nuclear-waste disposal site.
Harry Reid’s three great legacies as Senate Democratic Leader illustrated his unique ability to navigate tough political terrain via sheer determination:
Reid had an abiding connection to Barack Obama, reportedly playing a role in encouraging the freshman senator to launch his audacious presidential bid in 2007. When Obama was elected, Reid was majority leader, with 59 senators in his conference. Understanding the obstructionist intentions of the GOP, he quickly engineered a party switch by Arlen Specter (offering committee preferments as bait) to attain a filibuster-proof 60-senator majority.
In a series of maneuvers that Chuck Schumer could only dream of, Reid had to use all his skills to keep those 60 Democrats onboard when negotiations failed to secure a single Republican backer for Obama’s signature health-care-reform measure, the Affordable Care Act. Then, after the legislation had cleared the Senate, but with differences pending with the House, Democrats lost their Senate supermajority in a Massachusetts special election, and Reid and the White House had to devise a new strategy to secure final passage of the ACA via the budget-reconciliation process, which short-circuits any filibuster. It was legislative three-dimensional chess with the highest stakes, and for all Obamacare’s shortcomings, it has survived for more than a decade as the high-water mark of U.S. health-care legislation.
After the midterm fiasco of 2010 gave House control to Republicans, Reid’s diminished but intact Senate majority became more important to Democrats than ever as a firewall against Republican efforts to reduce Obama to a figurehead president. This was particularly true after Obama’s somewhat surprising reelection in 2012, accompanied by an even more surprising net pickup of two Senate seats by Reid’s Democrats. With Republicans threatening to filibuster all of Obama’s nominations, Reid pulled the trigger on the so-called nuclear option, a carve-out in the Senate rules for executive and judicial (other than to the Supreme Court) confirmation votes that enabled them to pass by a simple majority.
Reid knew this coup would provoke retaliation (which it did when a Republican-controlled Senate killed the right to filibuster Supreme Court confirmations in 2017) but recognized that bipartisan traditions of comity were dead beyond revival. “It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” he said in a floor speech defending the move. One of the three Democrats opposing Reid’s filibuster reform, Joe Manchin, remains one of the few holdouts against ending the filibuster altogether, which the Nevadan in retirement subsequently supported. It’s likely just a matter of time before one party or the other consummates the Senate revolution Harry Reid began.
The Nevada Democratic Party
Equaling his reputation as an old-school Senate wheeler and dealer, Reid was determined to make the Democratic Party of his state a powerful force that could overcome political adversity much as he had. His big claim to fame was his successful effort, going into the 2008 presidential election, to expand the early-nominating-process calendar to include the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary, thus diversifying the lily-white Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly that had dominated Democratic and Republican contests for decades. But according to local lore, Reid’s motives were not limited to his solicitude for a more representative presidential-primary system: He also wanted a 2008 Nevada caucus to help fine-tune the state Democratic party for his own reelection campaign in 2010.
As it happened, that decision was prescient; Reid needed every bit of help he could get from a souped-up party organization to defy the odds in 2010 and win another Senate term (Republicans helped by nominating the extremist Sharron Angle to challenge Reid, but his reelection still came as an upset given the intense anti-Democratic trend in 2010 and Reid’s own local approval ratings).
Nevada played an important role in the nomination victories of Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. And although Bernie Sanders (never close to Reid) won the caucuses handily in 2020, Biden’s second-place finish there began his unlikely comeback, which took off when he won a landslide in the next contest in South Carolina. More basically, Reid built a labor-based, Latino-friendly party organization that has helped Nevada Democrats win this very competitive state more often than not in recent years (going Democratic in four straight presidential elections and maintaining a big advantage in the state’s congressional delegation).
In retirement, Reid remained a big dog in state and national Democratic politics. After the Iowa-caucus meltdown of 2020, Reid quickly got behind an effort to give Nevada a primary while challenging the preferred calendar positions of both Iowa and New Hampshire. He didn’t live to see how this gambit plays out, but his beloved state will continue to exert outsize influence in national politics.
In an era when political activists of every stripe constantly call on pols to fight harder for the cause, the former amateur pugilist Reid never had to be asked twice to punch above his own weight through sheer persistence and loyalty to his state and party. But he was smart as well as tough, and in contrast to his longtime Republican sparring partner Mitch McConnell, he was also principled in an old-school, New Deal manner, cherishing his party’s legislative accomplishments and championing its constituencies. We’ll never know whether Reid might have fared better in dealing with today’s Senate than his successor, Chuck Schumer. But his lack of sentimental attachment to the Senate’s traditions of bipartisanship once they had lost their logic remains an example to Democrats who might wish it were otherwise — including his old colleague who now lives in the White House. Though he was a political lifer who spent a third of a century in Congress, Harry Reid never let tradition, or much of anything else, stand in his way.