March 31, 2015 — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D) surprise retirement announcement on Friday quickly yielded another unexpected pair of political moves. After saying he wouldn’t run next year, Reid quickly expressed support for former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto as his successor. This, even before Cortez Masto issued a statement of candidacy.
Just a day later, he and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) then both announced their support for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to succeed Reed as the party leader. It was believed that he and Durbin would battle each other for the leadership post, but their action suggests a smooth transition will presumably occur.
Reid’s decision to take a stand in the Democratic primary is within character because he often involves himself in pre-primary Senate races around the country. But, it’s unusual even for him to do so before the candidate is in the race.
This being said, presumably it has been worked out in Democratic circles well behind the scenes that Cortez Masto is the preferred candidate. Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV-1), however, doesn’t appear part of this deal since she describes herself as “seriously considering” a bid for the Senate. Former Secretary of State Ross Miller (D), who lost the race for attorney general last November to Republican Adam Laxalt, is yet another potential Democratic candidate.
Titus has run statewide before, unsuccessfully for governor even in a Democratic wave year (2006) and against a scandal-tainted Republican opponent. She then won the 3rd Congressional District in 2008, but lost to Joe Heck (R) during her first re-election attempt in 2010. When then-Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV-1) decided to run for Senate two years later, Titus came back and easily claimed the safely Democratic downtown Las Vegas seat. Last November, she scored a 57-38 percent re-election victory. Republicans would likely smile broadly if Rep. Titus became the Democratic senatorial nominee.
Catherine Cortez Masto is an ex-prosecuting attorney, chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Miller (D), and two-term attorney general. The latter is her only elective office and she scored a 52.8 percent win in 2006, before being re-elected with the same exact percentage in 2010. She will be considered the early favorite but not likely escape a contested Democratic primary.
Republicans now have a conversion opportunity. Since most of what appears to be the highly competitive seats are all Republican held having the chance to play offense is critical to their prospects of holding the majority.
Expect a renewed GOP push to recruit either Gov. Brian Sandoval, or representatives Heck or Mark Amodei (R-NV-2) into the race. Now, as an open seat, this campaign projects as a toss-up.
One of the most vulnerable Republican seats on the 2016 ballot is that of Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. Yesterday, Kirk’s first official opponent — two-term Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL-8) — announced her Senate candidacy.
Several members of the Illinois delegation have confirmed their interest in running, but Duckworth is the first to step forward. Also considering are representatives Robin Kelly (D-IL-2), Bill Foster (D-IL-11), and Cheri Bustos (D-IL-17). Sen. Kirk has already confirmed his re-election intentions.
Democratic leaders generally believe that Duckworth, a double-amputee from the Iraq War, is their top candidate. Even while winning two of her three congressional races, it has been commented upon that her campaign performance has not quite lived up to Duckworth’s strong resume.
Sen. Kirk, who suffered a debilitating stroke after he was elected in 2010, wants to use the campaign to set an inspirational example about rebounding from difficult physical adversity. The fact that Rep. Duckworth has a similarly compelling story, suggests his strategy may become somewhat less effective.
The next moves will come from other Democrats thinking of joining the race. Efforts will be made to clear the field for Duckworth, but it remains to be seen if the potential candidates will still push forward with their own efforts.
Expect the Illinois Senate campaign to remain in toss-up mode all the way through the 2016 election.