LAS VEGAS — Local and state officials gathered near Hoover Dam in April to celebrate the groundbreaking of a highway bypass that might ultimately become part of an interstate connecting Las Vegas with Phoenix.
It was a triumphal homecoming of sorts for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who had fought for years to fund the project and was making his first appearance in his home state since announcing he would retire next year.
But the event also highlighted the setbacks Reid’s fabled Democratic political machine has suffered in Nevada.
Sitting next to him was popular and newly-re-elected GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval. Joining him were other Republicans who swept into office last year in the Democrats’ worst electoral drubbing in 85 years.
Last year’s election was a noteworthy stumble for the political machine Reid has built over half a century in Nevada politics.
It’s a fusion of immigrants and labor unions with gambling and other businesses that helped Democrats maintain a regular edge in voting registration, win the state in both of the past two presidential elections and become a model of how previously-independent western states can trend blue.
But in 2016 Reid will not be on the ballot, and last year’s dismal results hint at the peril his party faces as he retires.
Reid may be stepping down from his Senate seat, but he is not going away. Nevada political types in both parties chortle as they envision the 75-year-old workaholic relaxing on a couch or playing golf.
The senator spent much of 2014 trying to preserve Democratic control of the U.S. Senate and had limited time to tend to his backyard in Nevada. In 2016, his own seat could swing the balance of power in the upper chamber of Congress back to Democrats.
“Senator Reid is doing everything he can to leave the Senate with Democrats in the majority,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said. “In Nevada, he will ensure Democrats up and down the ballot have what they need so we can keep the Nevada Senate seat, win the competitive congressional seats and take back the state Assembly and Senate.”
Still, after Reid leaves the Senate there will be a hole in the state party.
“Reid brought discipline, he brought focus, he raises money,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a veteran Nevada Democratic consultant. “The challenge is going to be who is going to take it over and who is going to be the driver now.”
At the top of the list is the woman Reid tapped to run for his seat, former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto.
Reid continued to flex his political muscles by clearing the field for Masto, who could become the first Latina Senator and, Democrats hope, can boost Latino turnout in a state that is 27 percent Hispanic.
The likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has stressed immigration in her two campaign visits to Nevada, partly in hopes of firing up a group that largely sat out last year’s elections.
Dismal rates of voting by Hispanics and other key Democratic groups — Nevada saw record low turnout — contributed to the lopsided GOP wins in 2014, when Republicans won every statewide office and took over the state Senate and Assembly for the first time since 1929.
Democrats expect to win back some of those legislative seats in 2016 and expect that a new generation of leaders could join Masto in running the operation Reid built.
The GOP hopes Rep. Joe Heck, a doctor and brigadier general in the Army Reserves who has repeatedly won a tough Las Vegas area swing district, runs against Masto for Reid’s Senate seat.
Republicans speak of Reid’s political acumen with respect. But they are optimistic they will continue to do well in Nevada and note that Reid’s operation suffered its share of losses even before last year — most notably, Sandoval defeated Reid’s son Rory in the 2010 governor’s race.
“Folks on our side, they’re excited,” Chris Carr, a Nevada Republican strategist who is now the RNC’s political director, said about the party’s prospects in the state for 2016. “The environment still favors Republicans.”
One of the biggest cogs in the Nevada Democratic machine, the Culinary Workers Union, which represents the heavily-immigrant workforce of many Las Vegas casinos, largely sat out the 2014 election.
The union’s political director, Yvanna Cancela, said Reid’s retirement will inevitably change the Democratic Party.
Currently, she said, “we have an electoral party, not a grassroots party.” Reid’s departure, she said, “allows for the organization of a long-term, sustainable grassroots party organized around not Sen. Reid as a champion, but around the Democratic brand.”