Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid today announced that he would not seek re-election, setting in motion a leadership change for Senate Democrats and a fight for his seat in the battleground state of Nevada next year.
Reid’s decision to step down at the end of 2016 will end a three-decade-long congressional career in which he rose from the House to become the Senate majority leader, a powerful post he used to help push through key pieces of President Obama’s domestic agenda in the face of intense Republican opposition.
The Nevada Democrat said his plan to retire was not based on the GOP takeover of the Senate after last year’s midterm elections, or the serious eye and face injuries he sustained while exercising at his home in Las Vegas in January.
The accident caused Reid, 75, to miss the opening days of the Senate, when he was replaced as majority leader by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Reid later returned to work sporting bruises on his face and shaded glasses to protect his injured right eye.
"The decision that I’ve made has absolutely nothing to do with my injury, it has nothing to do with my being minority leader, and it certainly has nothing to do with my ability to be re-elected," Reid said in a three-minute video that was posted to his Senate website this morning.
Reid said he was concerned that defending his seat would require vast sums of money that would be better spent on other races in 2016, when Democrats will have a much more favorable map than they did last cycle. The party needs to pick up five seats to regain control of the Senate, though Reid’s retirement makes that harder by putting another competitive race into play.
"We have to make sure Democrats take control of the Senate again," Reid said. "And I feel it is inappropriate for me to soak up all of those resources on me when I could be devoting those resources to the caucus."
The announcement does not come as a complete surprise. Speculation had been mounting for months, if not years, that Reid would forgo a shot at a sixth term, though the lawmaker insisted publicly as recently as January that he planned to run for re-election.
It had long been assumed that Reid’s top lieutenants — New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the minority whip — would battle it out to succeed him.
But Reid moved quickly this morning to anoint his successor, endorsing Schumer in an interview with The Washington Post.
"I think Schumer should be able to succeed me," Reid told the newspaper in an interview at his Washington, D.C., home. Reid said that Durbin had agreed to step aside for Schumer, a fundraising powerhouse who runs the caucus’ policy arm.
"Harry is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. His character and fundamental decency are at the core of why he’s been such a successful and beloved leader," Schumer said in a statement. "He has left a major mark on this body."
Durbin was equally effusive, saying Reid was one of the "ablest leaders of the Senate Democratic caucus in modern history." He added, "The Senate will miss his leadership, and I will miss his friendship, but with the 114th Congress only just underway, Leader Reid and Senate Democrats have a lot of work to do."
Reid was elected to the Nevada State Legislature in 1968, after famously working his way through law school as a Capitol Hill police officer in the early 1960s. He won a seat in the House in 1982 and was elected to the Senate in 1986.
The Searchlight, Nev., native and one-time amateur boxer became the top Senate Democrat in 2005 and served as majority leader from 2007 through last year, the second-longest run as leader in caucus history after that of former Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield (D).
As majority leader, Reid helped enact the 2009 stimulus bill and the Obama administration’s signature health care reform. He also pushed through a controversial rule change known as the "nuclear option" in 2013 that prohibited Republicans, then in the minority, from blocking most judicial appointees.
But Reid came under fire for his leadership style in recent years, especially his decision to limit amendments and votes on some controversial pieces of legislation. Critics have argued that the strategy hurt Democratic incumbents last fall, when the GOP won nine Senate seats and retook control of the chamber.
Scramble in Nev.
Already expected to be a hotly contested race before Reid’s announcement today — Nevada is a swing state, and conservative groups like the Tea Party Express had named Reid their top target in the 2016 election — the competition for his Senate seat was upgraded by the Cook Political Report to a rating of "toss-up," its most competitive designation, in the wake of Reid’s decision,.
While President Obama claimed victories in Nevada in both 2008 and 2012, taking 52 percent in the state in his second presidential bid, Reid is the only Democrat currently elected statewide.
Establishment Republicans have already spent months encouraging Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) to challenge Reid for his seat, although the two-term governor has publicly demurred when asked whether he will make another run for office.
In an interview with Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston earlier this year, Sandoval acknowledged that his own budget proposal — which includes the largest tax increase in state history — would be a major hurdle for him in any future campaign.
"Do you really think, if this is my last session as governor, I would propose the things that I proposed last night, thinking I might be on a ballot?" Sandoval said in January.
Sandoval praised Reid in a statement issued today, but did not address the 2016 contest
"Senator Reid has been an influential voice in Congress on behalf of Nevada’s interests, particularly on issues such as Yucca Mountain and renewable energy development," Sandoval said. "His service to Nevada as a State Legislator, Lieutenant Governor, Congressman, and Senator spans almost half a century and his legacy will last for generations. I would like to thank Senator Reid for his service to our state. I appreciate the opportunity to have worked closely with him to strengthen Nevada and remain committed to continue that work as he completes his final term."
While Sandoval’s entry into the race would also likely winnow a potentially large GOP field, a host of more conservative Republicans — including state Controller Ron Knecht and state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the son of former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) — could opt into the race regardless.
In addition to Knecht and Laxalt, other would-be contenders include Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and state Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske. Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers (R) had already declared his candidacy ahead of Reid’s retirement.
It also remains to be seen whether Republican Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei will opt into the Senate race, after having previously declined to challenge Reid.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Ward Baker marked Reid’s retirement as a victory, while vowing that the GOP would be able to flip control of the Senate seat.
"On the verge of losing his own election and after losing the majority, Senator Harry Reid has decided to hang up his rusty spurs," Ward said in a statement. "Not only does Reid instantly become irrelevant and a lame duck, his retirement signals that there is no hope for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate. With the exception of Reid, every elected statewide official in Nevada is Republican and this race is the top pickup opportunity for the GOP."
In the wake of Reid’s announcement, former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto immediately topped lists of potential Democratic successors. Cortez Masto won campaigns in 2006 and 2010 before leaving office in 2014.
Other potential contenders include Rep. Dina Titus (D), as well as former Secretary of State Ross Miller, who lost a 2014 bid for state attorney general to Laxalt and Rory Reid, the senator’s son and a former Clark County commissioner who lost a 2010 gubernatorial bid against Sandoval.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) asserted that Democrats will be able to retain the Senate seat next year.
"There is a talented pool of Nevada Democrats who are ready to step up to the plate, and we will recruit a top-notch candidate in Nevada who will be successful in holding this seat in 2016," Tester said.