Can Marijuana Save Harry Reid in 2016?

A Nevada ballot measure to legalize pot may be a boon to the Democrats' Senate leader.
Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By the looks of it, Harry Reid will need all the help he can get if he decides to run for re-election in two years, and one thing that may lend the Senate Minority Leader a mellow hand is marijuana.

Last week, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Nevada said it submitted more than 145,000 ballot initiative signatures to county offices in the state. If approved, that would be enough to force Nevada’s Republican-majority legislature to consider legalizing recreational marijuana in its next session.

A new law would, of course, require approval in both chambers, as well as the signature of Governor Brian Sandoval, who is also a Republican. But if state lawmakers refuse to consider the measure, the ballot initiative would automatically go to voters in 2016, possibly giving Democrats more reason to show up on Election Day, or so the argument goes. 

Already, Democrats are trying to the legalization of recreational marijuana as leverage. In an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal last week, State Senator Tick Segerblom warned his Republican counterparts that they should vote on the pot proposal soon or risk a possible wave of motivated, marijuana-loving Democrats that could impact other 2016 races.

“If you look around the country, one of the biggest factors in turnout is having marijuana on the ballot,” he told the newspaper.

Earlier this month, voters in Oregon and Alaska legalized recreational pot use and sales, mirroring similar laws in Colorado and Washington. In the District of Columbia, a more limited proposal to allow pot possession, but not sales, won nearly 65 percent support.

It’s certainly possible a pot vote in Nevada could help Reid, whose future in the Senate suddenly looks precarious. After using his super-PAC to spend heavily (and unsuccessfully) in midterm races, the Nevadan was re-crowned Senate leader of the Democratic Party last week, though the vote was not unanimous.

“Our party got walloped,” Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, among the handful of senators who voted against Reid, explained Sunday in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I think they said we need to change what our party is doing, and I think change begins with leadership.”

The midterm dust had barely settled when Republicans made clear they were plotting next to dethrone Reid in his home state, urging potential challengers, including Governor Sendoval, to consider a run for what is sure to be one of the most coveted seats for the GOP next election.

“Frankly, I’ll say this: I think Harry Reid may decide to retire,” Senator Roger Wicker, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Friday on MSNBC.  “That’s my prediction.”

Nationwide, Reid’s approval rating has dropped to an all-time low of 21 percent, according to an October Gallup poll that surveyed 1,252 adults around the country.

So can marijuana save Reid's political fortune? There are reasons to be skeptical, not least of which is that it’s impossible to predict what an electorate will care about this far in advance. For instance, Nevada advocates of background checks for gun owners also reportedly turned in signatures for their own ballot initiative last week, potentially sparking a debate in this Western state that could easily bury marijuana in a cloud of smoke.

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