Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's poll numbers make him look like an easy mark, but casino owners who have a history of disregarding party and going with the winner in Nevada politics are putting their money on him winning re-election.
While his leadership is under assault in Washington and the GOP has made him its No. 1 target in November's election, Reid is counting on decades of close ties with the gambling industry and the nearly one in every three jobs it supports in the state to win over disapproving voters.
On Friday, he'll be joined in Las Vegas by President Barack Obama at the largest privately financed construction project in U.S. history, the $8.5 billion CityCenter casino-resort co-owned by gambling giant MGM Mirage. Eleven thousand people work in the complex, which might not be there if Reid hadn't gotten on the horn with bankers to finance it.
The event will send a simple message when one in five Nevada workers is either unemployed or underemployed: jobs, jobs, jobs, a Democratic mantra since Republican Sen. Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts last month.
CityCenter "makes it more difficult for Republicans to make the argument that you are better off with us than with Harry Reid," says David Damore, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political scientist.
But with voters deeply unhappy with Congress, and in a state leading the nation in bankruptcies and foreclosures, "I don't think he can be inoculated," Damore added. "There is this populist impulse out there" threatening Reid and other incumbents nationwide.
Even with the opening of CityCenter, leisure and hospitality jobs in Nevada continued to evaporate in December. Many of the thousands of voters bitter about the state's economy are newer residents who know little about Reid, 70, or his decades-long political career. And his high-profile position pushing Obama's agenda has also hurt him with independent voters.
A survey commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December found a lackluster 38 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Reid, the same result as in an October survey.
The timing of Obama's visit isn't ideal. Earlier this month, the president issued a written clarification after suggesting in a speech that people saving money for college shouldn't spend it in Las Vegas. It was the second time since taking office that Obama singled out Las Vegas as a potential example of reckless spending. Even Reid said the president "needs to lay off Las Vegas."
Few states are as reliant on, or influenced by, one industry as Nevada.
Gambling accounts for 15 percent of the jobs in the state, according to state data, but these days casinos are often just part of lavish resorts that include restaurants, shopping malls, nightclubs, hotel rooms and entertainment stages.
One of the senator's early campaign ads featured an endorsement from MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren, whose company owns most of the hotel-casinos on the Vegas Strip.
Looking squarely into the camera, Murren credits Reid with using his clout to save CityCenter when its financing nearly collapsed during the depths of the recession.
Reid "called every CEO of every bank that I know," Murren says. "There is no one else that could have done that."
In a campaign in which Reid plans to raise a Nevada-record $25 million, casinos and the powerful unions whose members fill many of their jobs have been among his top supporters.
MGM Mirage and its employees were the senator's top donors from 2005 through 2010, giving him more than $150,000, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that monitors campaign finance.
Funding from Harrah's Entertainment, another major player on the Strip, and its employees ranked third, at nearly $82,000. Neither MGM Mirage's political arm nor Harrah's has donated to any of Reid's leading Republican rivals.
Republicans in the gambling industry who support Reid include Tom Breitling, a senior vice president at Wynn Resorts, and Lorenzo Fertitta, co-founder of Station Casinos.
Reid "has done a nice job of locking down the gaming industry," said Ryan Erwin, senior adviser to Republican candidate John Chachas, a Wall Street banker who moved back to Nevada.
But "industries don't drive the political process, people do," Erwin added. "If polling is any indication, Sen. Reid is not doing very well connecting with the people."
The casino support is not unanimous — Republican candidate Sue Lowden and her husband own stock valued at more than $50 million in Archon Corp., a Las Vegas investment and gaming company.
It's possible some casinos might be holding back dollars until a Republican nominee emerges from a crowded field that includes Lowden, a former state senator who resigned as chairwoman of the state GOP to run; Danny Tarkanian, son of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian; former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle; and Chachas.
Lowden's campaign manager, Robert Uithoven, said casino support for Reid stems from fear of the Washington leader, not support for Democratic policies.
"You don't become a career-long politician in Nevada and have an adverse relationship with our single largest industry," Uithoven said. In a troubled economy, big casino companies "fear coming on board with any Republican candidate could affect their ability to get that very important phone call to a bank," alluding to Reid's role with MGM.
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