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Nevada's Sen. Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite

In Washington, GOP looks for a challenger for Murray

By Stuart Rothenberg

Nevada Senate On one level, Sen. Harry Reid (D) looks to be in good shape for re-election. After all, he's an incumbent, and Nevada voters haven't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1982.

1998 Gubernatorial Ratings

But Reid has some votes that will open him up to attacks from his GOP opponent -- he voted against the Balanced Budget Amendment and supported both the Brady Bill and President Clinton's 1993 budget -- and Nevada Republicans could well recruit one of the strongest Senate nominees they have had in many years.

One Republican is already in the race, but a second is waiting in the wings. Bruce James is a wealthy businessman who moved from California to Nevada just a few years ago. James says that he is willing to commit substantial amounts of his own money to his race, and he calls himself a conservative who is pro-choice on abortion but opposes government funding and partial birth abortions.

But while James' money guarantees that he could be a factor in a primary, he isn't known nearly as well by party insiders as Cong. John Ensign, the two-term GOP congressman from Las Vegas who is currently considering the race.

Ensign, a strong fund-raiser who weathered relentless Democratic attacks last year, is widely regarded as 95 percent committed to a Senate race. In fact, Democrats have already recruited a strong House candidate in Ensign's Democratic-leaning 1st Congressional District, and that could encourage Ensign to take on Reid.

Incumbent Reid is expected to have over $1 million in the bank at the end of June, and his consulting team has already been put together. The state's economic growth is in his favor, as is the recent Senate trend of high re-election rates.

The GOP's chances next November probably depend on their ability to recruit Ensign into the race and avoid an expensive, bitter primary. If they can keep the focus on the Democratic senator and tap the state's basic conservatism, they have a chance to pick up the seat. But Reid starts off as the favorite.

Washington Senate There's an old saying: You can't beat something with nothing. That's why some Republicans are worried whether they can knock off Sen. Patty Murray, a freshman senator who looks vulnerable but hasn't yet drawn a challenger who looks like a sure winner against her next year.

Murray hasn't cut a sharp profile in the nation's capital or back in her home state since she was first elected in 1992, when she ran in an anti-politician environment as "a mom in tennis shoes." Her liberal record should give the Republicans an opening.

The first Republican to enter the race against Murray is Linda Smith, the maverick congresswoman from the 3rd C.D. Smith pulled off a rarity when she was first elected to Congress in 1994: she won the GOP nomination as a write-in candidate. Well known for her anti-tax activism and conservatism on moral issues (including abortion), Smith is also known for her attacks on special interests and her support for efforts to scrap the current campaign finance system, including political action committees.

Smith raised eyebrows recently earlier this year when she was one of a handful of Republicans not to vote for Newt Gingrich as House speaker, and her refusal to take PAC money has some Republicans wondering aloud if she would be the best GOP nominee against Murray.

Supporters of the congresswoman argue that her reputation for independence would be a huge asset against Murray, particularly given Washington State's recent partisan swings and generally independent-minded bent. And there is no doubt about the high-energy Smith's personal campaign skills.

Party insiders and even some conservatives are hoping that another Republican will jump into the Senate race. Cong. Jennifer Dunn (R-WA 8) is widely regarded as the strongest contender for the nomination and a tough foe for Murray in the general election, but Dunn seems inclined to remain in the House. She has yet to make a formal statement about her plans.

Cong. George Nethercutt (R-WA 5) is also mentioned as interested, and he might jump in if Dunn ultimately decided against the Senate race. But Nethercutt comes from the extreme eastern third of the state and has little name recognition in heavily populated western Washington. And he lacks Smith's dedicated core of supporters. Cong. Rick White (R-WA 1) is also mentioned as a potential candidate, but he may not be ready to make a Senate race at this time.

The other name currently making the political rounds is state party chairman Dale Foreman, a conservative who finished second in the 1996 GOP gubernatorial primary and clearly has long-term ambitions. But Foreman promised not to run in 1998 as a condition for his getting the state party job, and he would risk creating a major party fissure by taking on Smith in the Senate primary. Some party insiders and Washington State business people, however, are trying to twist Foreman's arm to make the race. They argue that his conservative views (he's pro-life, like Smith), but more measured style -- combined with past fund raising success -- would allow him to compete with Smith for conservative GOP primary voters as well as take on Murray in a general election.

Until the GOP uncovers a candidate with the fund raising might and campaign strength to upend Murray, the senator will be a less-than-intimidating favorite.

Spotlight Archives:

Pennsylvania's 15th C.D. Looks Competitive (12/09/97)
In Idaho, A Rare Opportunity For Dems (11/19/97)
Stay The Course (11/6/97)
Car-Tax Issue Lifts Gilmore In Virginia (10/23/97)
New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire (10/9/97)
Idaho Scramble: Who's Running For What? (9/25/97)
Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg (9/10/97)
Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems (8/25/97)
Georgia Governor's Race A Free-For-All (8/12/97)
Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
Dem, GOP Tests In Connecticut, Arizona (4/9/97)
Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet (3/25/97)
Whitman A Favorite In New Jersey (2/25/97)
Sen. Boxer Could Be Vulnerable (2/11/97)
Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race (1/28/97)
Looking Ahead To '98 Gubernatorial Races In California, Florida (1/23/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Ratings (1/23/97)
Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman (1/10/97)

Spotlight 1996

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