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Harry Reid in winter: Still grappling, and dabbling, in politics

Political Theater Podcast, Episode 81

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with CQ Roll Call about Nevada politics, the presidential race and baseball in his office at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on July 2. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Harry Reid might have retired from the Senate in 2017 and started battling cancer a year later, but the former Senate Democratic leader doesn’t seem to be the retiring type, especially when it comes to Nevada politics.

“I’m a political junkie, to say the least,” he tells our own Niels Lesniewski in a wide-ranging interview in Las Vegas that we’ve excerpted for this edition of the Political Theater podcast.

His imprint is all over the state’s Democratic Party, which has out-organized its Republican counterpart in the last few election cycles, resulting in Democrats occupying both U.S. Senate seats, three of the four U.S. House seats and the governor’s mansion, and controlling both chambers of the state Legislature. 

And during Lesniewski’s interview with him on July 2 in his office at the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip, Reid previewed coming changes to the Nevada caucuses next February that aim to get more people involved (and on a list for future reference for the party.)

“You know, it’s not an easy thing to do,” Reid tells Lesniewski. “These caucuses, you need a degree in math to figure out how to make sure everyone’s counted that wants to participate.”

Part of the reason Lesniewski was out in Nevada was to check in on the various 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls who know that a good performance in the state’s caucuses can keep a streak from Iowa or New Hampshire going, or sustain some momentum toward future presidential contests in South Carolina and even Super Tuesday. 

Reid warns his party, though, against complacency and says Trump and the Republicans have ample opportunity make up their losses if Democrats lose their edge.

If this sounds a bit like casino logic, well, that might not be too far off. Reid has always seemed to enjoy handicapping opponents’ chances, daring them to bet big and calmly collecting his own political spoils. 

He spent years as Nevada’s gaming commissioner before winning election to the House and Senate. For a Mormon who doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble, he is at home in Vegas.

He is also paired up with former Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican from Ohio who is virtually Reid’s opposite in temperament and approach, on a joint MGM-University of Nevada, Las Vegas public policy venture. 

For all his political interest and acumen, it doesn’t sound like he harks back  much to his time in Washington. “Frankly, I don’t miss it much,” he says of D.C., adding that, even as the Senate slides into becoming more like the House, there’s not much anything anyone can do about it, so why worry? 

And that whole pancreatic cancer treatment? Reid says it’s just “a little cancer” even though the chemotherapy required led to a back surgery that has limited his mobility. Not that that has really slowed him up much. “My posture’s not worth a damn,” Reid says, “But I’m doing OK. No need to complain.”

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