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Why Harry Reid’s Retirement Will Hurt Democrats In Nevada

Sen. Harry Reid’s announcement Friday that he won’t seek re-election wasn’t a total surprise. Reid is 75 and recently suffered a severe eye injury, and his Democrats lost their majority in the Senate last year, reducing his role to minority leader.

But will Reid’s decision make it harder for Democrats to regain their majority in 2016? The answer appears to be yes.

A Gravis Marketing poll, conducted last month, found Reid narrowly trailing two prospective Republican opponents, Adam Laxalt and Brian Krolocki. Meanwhile, Reid’s favorability and approval ratings remain poor, both nationally and in Nevada.

Facing those circumstances, Democrats might seem just as inclined to take their chances on an open-seat race in 2016. Nevada, after all, was slightly blue-leaning in the past two presidential elections, with President Obama slightly exceeding his national margin of victory in the state both times.

But that analysis is a little superficial. Nevada Democrats were probably better off with Reid than without him.

For one thing, the polls have underrated Reid before. While most public polling projected Reid to lose his seat to Republican Sharron Angle in 2010, Reid won instead, and by a reasonably solid 6-point margin.

In fact, rather than signifying a horribly flawed incumbent, Reid’s performance in 2010 was in line with how other Democratic incumbents fared in the past two midterms. In the table below, I’ve compared the margin of victory or defeat for Democratic senators in 2010 and 2014 against Obama’s margin in each state in 2012. As it happened, Obama’s margin was a good guide for how these incumbents fared. All five Democratic incumbents in states that Obama lost in 2012 lost their races as well, while all but two in states Obama won held their seats. Reid was a typical case, winning by 6 percentage points as compared to Obama’s 7-point margin of victory.

STATE INCUMBENT YEAR SENATE MARGIN PRES. MARGIN (2012)
Hawaii Inouye 2010 D+53.2 D+42.7
Hawaii Schatz 2014 D+42.1 D+42.7
Vermont Leahy 2010 D+33.4 D+35.6
New York Gillibrand 2010 D+27.8 D+28.2
New York Schumer 2010 D+34.1 D+28.2
Rhode Island Reed 2014 D+41.3 D+27.5
Maryland Mikulski 2010 D+26.4 D+26.1
Massachusetts Markey 2014 D+23.9 D+23.1
California Boxer 2010 D+10.0 D+23.1
Delaware Coons 2014 D+13.6 D+18.6
New Jersey Booker 2014 D+13.5 D+17.7
Illinois Durbin 2014 D+10.9 D+16.8
Washington Murray 2010 D+4.7 D+14.8
Oregon Wyden 2010 D+18.0 D+12.1
Oregon Merkley 2014 D+18.9 D+12.1
New Mexico Udall 2014 D+11.1 D+10.1
Minnesota Franken 2014 D+10.2 D+7.7
Wisconsin Feingold 2010 R+4.8 D+6.9
Nevada Reid 2010 D+5.7 D+6.7
New Hampshire Shaheen 2014 D+3.2 D+5.6
Colorado Bennet 2010 D+1.7 D+5.4
Colorado Udall 2014 R+1.9 D+5.4
Virginia Warner 2014 D+0.8 D+3.9
North Carolina Hagan 2014 R+1.6 R+2.0
Alaska Begich 2014 R+2.1 R+14.0
Louisiana Landrieu 2014 R+11.9 R+17.2
Arkansas Lincoln 2010 R+21.0 R+23.7
Arkansas Prior 2014 R+17.1 R+23.7

At first glance, this might make it seem as though incumbency provided little advantage to Reid or the other Democrats. But that isn’t the case: 2010 and 2014 were strongly Republican-leaning years. The incumbency advantage was enough to allow Reid and many Democrats to overcome the midterm tide and match Obama’s presidential-year performance.

Reid, of course, also benefited from a poor Republican opponent in Angle, whose political platform was far to the right of the average Nevadan and who was an inexperienced and gaffe-prone candidate. Still, Angle raised almost $28 million in individual contributions to her Senate bid in 2010 (double Reid’s $14 million), and she’d at least held elected office before (unlike say, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware). FiveThirtyEight’s “fundamentals” analysis had Angle slightly favored in 2010, as did the polls.

So Reid’s experience in running Nevada campaigns and his ability to turn out his voters went some way in overcoming his personal unpopularity in Nevada. The quality of campaigns can matter considerably in Nevada because it’s a low-turnout state, full of shift workers and recent transplants. Persuasion may be less important there than getting voters to the polls, something Reid (and Obama) were highly skilled at.

The problem for Democrats is that, other than Reid and Obama, their candidates haven’t had such an easy time turning out the vote. Republicans control Nevada’s governorship, its state assembly and (narrowly) its state senate, along with three of its four U.S. House seats. Democrats have sometimes come up short in the state even under seemingly favorable circumstances, such as Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in 2006, when Republican incumbent John Porter narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Tessa M. Hafen in a Democratic “wave” year, or when the Democratic candidate Shelley Berkley lost the U.S. Senate race in 2012 even as Obama was re-elected.

The Nevada political guru Jon Ralston, who correctly predicted that Reid would hold the Senate in 2010, points out that Democrats have a “weak bench” in Nevada, consisting mostly of retreads like Titus. A budding star’s charisma might outweigh Reid’s experience, but Democrats don’t have one. Their best-known candidate, Catherine Cortez Masto, is a former state attorney general who is no longer in office.

This isn’t a total disaster for Democrats by any means. Perhaps the race is a true tossup now, whereas, with Reid on the ballot, they would have been only slightly favored. But, even for all his baggage, Democrats may miss Reid.

CORRECTION (April 13, 3:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Democrat who lost in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in 2006; it was Tessa M. Hafen, not Dina Titus.


Related: Harry Enten wrote about why Reid endorsed Chuck Schumer to be his replacement.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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