WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Harry Reid, a key ally to President Barack Obama, is in danger in Tuesday’s election of becoming the first U.S. Senate majority leader in 58 years to be booted out of office by home-state voters.
A Reid defeat -- to a favorite of the anti-establishment Tea Party movement -- would be a repudiation of Obama, who made several trips to Nevada to try to bail out his fellow Democrat, widely viewed as tough but not charismatic.
It would also be a sign that the political brand of many experienced senators -- those who deliver results through back-room dealings rather than fiery oratory -- is not as powerful a draw for voters as it once was.
But above all, it underlines the importance of the economy and unemployment in these elections. Nevada has the highest jobless rate in the country, at 14.4 percent compared to a national average of 9.6 percent.
“In a sense it is a configuration of the stars,” said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “If any of these factors weren’t there, I don’t think it would be a close election.”
Anti-Washington ire fanned by the weak U.S. economy has made Reid a top Republican target and put him in a razor-close race with Sharron Angle, a darling of the Tea Party movement.
“You know, Harry’s not the flashiest guy, let’s face it,” Obama told a crowd of about 9,000 people in Las Vegas this month. Laughter then turned to applause as Obama added: “Harry Reid does the right thing.”
The right thing in Obama’s eyes has been to play a major role in shepherding the president’s agenda through Congress, including his landmark overhaul of the healthcare system.
But those legislative achievements have brought few visible benefits to Nevadans, where the rate of home foreclosures is also the highest in the country.
Nevada’s Senate race has been among the nation’s nastiest with Reid and Angle exchanging barbs, and polls showing voters view both of them unfavorably.
Democrats celebrated when Angle won the Republican primary, predicting that her views -- which include privatizing Social Security -- were too extreme. But disdain for Reid is so strong the race remains too close to call.
Eric Herzik, who heads the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, thinks Reid, 70, will scrape out a win, as he has in a number of close races before becoming the Senate’s top Democrat.
“I‘m sticking with my early prediction. It will be close, it will be ugly and I think Harry Reid wins,” Herzik said.
Reid spent six years in the House of Representatives and 24 in the Senate, becoming Senate minority leader in 2005 and rising to majority leader two years later.
Republicans are expected to make big gains in next week’s election, but fall short of taking back control of the Senate -- even if Reid is ousted.
The last Senate majority leader to be defeated in a general election was Democrat Ernest McFarland in 1952, according to the Senate historian’s office.
During his years on Capitol Hill, the often combative Reid, a one-time amateur boxer, has drawn praise and criticism for his often blunt remarks.
He called then-President George W. Bush “a loser,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas an “embarrassment” and then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan “one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington.”
Reid triggered a political firestorm when he declared in May 2007 that Bush’s then 4-year-old war in Iraq was “lost.”
Reid was born to a poor family in the tiny desert town of Searchlight, Nevada, on December 2, 1939. They lived in a shack with no toilet or hot water. His father, who later committed suicide, was a hardrock miner. His mother took in laundry from the local brothels to make ends meet.
Reid likes to say: “If I can make it America, anyone can.”
Editing by Simon Denyer and Vicki Allen