Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is feeling the heat from his liberal colleagues to include a government-run health insurance plan, or "public option," in the Senate health care bill.
Now, as Reid and other negotiators move closer to unveiling their health care plan, liberal advocacy groups are ratcheting up the pressure, saying they will run Reid out of Washington if he does not bring a public option to the Senate floor. With a tough re-election bid ahead of Reid next year, the liberal "Netroots" could potentially make good on their threat. Coming from a purple state, that puts Reid between a rock and a hard place -- and has some local progressive activists at least somewhat worried.
One television ad pressuring Reid to support the public option is already out: The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) is running a spot for at least five days in Las Vegas called "Is Harry Reid Strong Enough?"
"I'm your typical swing voter," Lee Slaughter, a Las Vegas nurse says in the ad. "I voted for Republicans for president, and I voted for President Obama. I also voted for Senator Harry Reid many times. But in 2010, I'll only be voting on one issue. I'm watching to see if Harry Reid is strong and effective enough as a leader to pass a public health insurance option into law."
FDL Action, the political action committee for the progressive group FireDogLake, is also planning to pressure the majority leader on the subject. The group has already targeted a handful of other moderate Democrats for not supporting a public option, like Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross, who has since come under a firestorm of scrutiny from all directions.
The message from the left is that a large Democratic majority in Congress is meaningless if the caucus is unwilling to support liberal causes.
"I'll take a Chuck Schumer-run Senate with 57 Democrats (bye bye Reid, Lieberman, and Lincoln) than a Harry Reid-run one with 75 Democrats," Markos Moulitsas Zúniga wrote last week on the liberal blog network Daily Kos.
Bob Fulkerson, the state director for the nonprofit Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, disagrees with that reasoning.
"Certainly we'd all like to see a barrage of progressive legislation get passed left and right, but even if we elected a more liberal senator than Reid -- likely impossible given Nevada's conservatism -- that would do nothing to change the dynamics of the Senate, where there's a number of conservative Democrats and Independents," Fulkerson told CBSNews.com. "And, would these lefty blogger types be happy with a right-wing senator to replace Reid who is openly hostile to all of our interests? Because that's where their strategy could lead."
Reid wouldn't necessarily hold up against a Republican opponent any stronger than a new Democratic candidate would, contends Ben Tribbett, executive director of the Accountability Now PAC. In fact, he said, having a relatively unknown Democrat in the race could be a good thing.
"There's an oft-quoted statistic that 98 percent of incumbents win re-election, but that's not the case with Senate incumbents in recent years," he told CBSNews.com. "People are able to mobilize earlier, and a lot of those incumbent advantages no longer exist."
Excluding senators who never draw strong challenges, he said, the chances for re-election are closer to 50-50. Furthermore, Tribbett said, a Republican candidate would be able to raise more money running against Reid than against another Democrat.
"Harry Reid's only chance to win this election is representing his own base and bringing a strong public option on the floor," he said.
Indeed, if liberals in Nevada do not get behind Reid next year, he could see his four-term Senate career come to an end. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed the Nevada senator trailing two possible, relatively unknown, Republican challengers. Real estate developer Danny Tarkanian led Reid 48 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical matchup, while those polled favored former GOP party official Sue Lowden over Reid by 49 percent to 39 percent.
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Fulkerson contends that national liberal advocates are not considering the clout Reid can bring to local progressive issues and are underestimating the number of conservative and moderate voters in the state.
"Why would Nevada want to give up the power of being represented by the Senate Majority Leader? [Reid] has skillfully used that power to kill coal plants, plug state budget holes, and to kill Yucca Mountain, among other things," he said. "If the looney left wants to get rid of Democrats like Reid for not being more like [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, they should move here and help us transform our state from conservative/libertarian to more liberal/progressive."
How Much will the Public Option Matter in Nov. 2010?
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said that health care will certainly play a role in the 2010 election but that it will most likely be overshadowed by the state of the economy. As for whether ads targeting Reid on the public option could sway voters, she said it is too early to tell. Furthermore, she said, there have been ads running in Nevada on both sides of the issue for months.
"Voters are bound to be affected by it to some degree," Duffy said.
Polling on health care has had mixed results. A survey of Nevadans conducted by Mason-Dixon & Research earlier this month showed 43 percent supported President Obama's health care reform plans while 49 percent were opposed to them. Twenty-five percent listed a public option as "the best" way to reduce the number of uninsured Americans and reduce long-term health care costs.
Meanwhile, a new Research 2000 poll commissioned by PCCC shows 54 percent of Nevadans in favor of a public option and 39 percent opposed to the idea. Thirty-one percent said they were less likely to vote for Reid next year if a public option is not a part of health care reform while 17 percent said that would make them more likely to vote for him.
While they may be somewhat split on the issue, Nevada voters clearly care about health care reform. Nevada residents packed an auditorium on Monday night, leaving standing room only at a town hall meeting with Democrat Rep. Dina Titus to discuss health care.
While Fulkerson has reservations about the tactics of national progressives, he acknowledges health care will be a critical issue for Reid.
"I think if a good bill is passed, with a public option, Reid's standing with the base will skyrocket. I think it will also increase his standing with Independents," he said. "Nevada leads the nation in uninsured, and we rank among the worst states in per capita health care spending, so this is a really big issue here. The campaign [targeting Reid] does further raise expectations of liberal voters, who will feel demoralized if the public option is not part of the bill that Obama signs."
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said the issue is a game-changer for Reid.
"Reid would be politically devastated back home if he's weak and caves on the public option," he said.