Two years ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid must have felt on top of the world. He stood at the helm of a Democratically controlled Congress, and he and his state had just helped put a Democrat in the White House. Reid and his cohorts immediately set to work: They scotched the plan to bury nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada's pet peeve; they passed a massive economic recovery bill; they protected oodles of land with the omnibus public lands bill of 2009; and Reid shepherded health-care reform -- perhaps the most significant legislation in 50 years -- through the Senate.
HCN's Guide to Western Elections
But the economy was collapsing, and Nevada was hit hard. Unemployment shot from 8 percent in November 2008 to 14 percent today. The state has consistently led the nation in foreclosures, and more than half of Las Vegas homeowners have "upside-down" mortgages, meaning they owe more than their homes are worth. It's beginning to look as if storing nuclear waste -- in the basement, say -- might be the only way to bring property values up.
Reid's popularity plunged with the economy, and Republicans saw an opportunity to end the 40-year political career of one of their most powerful opponents. The Sacramento-based Tea Party Express focused intense effort on the state, drawing Sarah Palin and an angry crowd to a rally in Reid's hometown, Searchlight, in March. Then Tea Partier Sharron Angle -- a state legislator from Reno -- beat the more mainstream Republican Sue Lowden in the primary. Reid's fortunes suddenly improved. Angle's extreme views -- she's hinted that an armed insurrection would get the country back on track, for instance -- pushed prominent Republicans to endorse Reid.
Even the National Rifle Association considered endorsing Reid, but pulled back, citing the gun-totin' senator's vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Still, the behemoth gun group also refused to endorse Angle. And the League of Conservation Voters swallowed its distaste for Reid's consistent blocking of 1872 Mining Act reform and his support for a groundwater-sucking plan to water Vegas' lawns, and strongly endorsed him. He is now leading in most polls.
Also watch Freshman Rep. Dina Titus rode the Obama bus to victory in her suburban Las Vegas district in 2008, using savvy acquired in her career as a political science professor. But her fortunes don't look so good this time: She's tried to paint her opponent, Joe Heck -- a physician and state senator -- as an extremist by running ads that take his words out of context, a ploy that doesn't appear to be working. And in the race for the governor's office, scandal-mired Republican incumbent Jim Gibbons got knocked out by Brian Sandoval, a judge, in primary season; that means that either Sandoval or Democrat Rory Reid, Harry's son, will be Nevada's next governor.