WASHINGTON — If the Democrats gain control of the Senate after Tuesday's election, many conservative Utahns may have more in common with the new Senate majority leader than they think.

Sen. Harry Reid, 66, may be a Democrat and he may represent Nevada, but he has Utah connections — he went to Utah State University, all his children went to Brigham Young University, and he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Political pundits and predictors still cannot nail down exactly what will happen on Tuesday. The Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win a Senate majority, and competitive races in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia have made the idea not so far-fetched.

"We'll pick up some seats; it's just a question of how many," Reid told the Deseret Morning News.

If the Democrats take over, Reid will change from Senate minority leader to Senate majority leader, keeping his status as the highest-ranking senator who is a member of the LDS Church in Congress.

He'll worry about his new role later, because until Election Day he is working to get Democrats elected by fund raising, watching polls and "hustling very hard" to make sure incumbents keep their seats and challengers win their races.

He said becoming leader is "only a byproduct of taking the majority," which needs to happen first, and he said the "goals are the same" if he does become leader. He gives Democrats a "50-50 chance" of taking control.

This time around, Reid would welcome a promotion, because it would mean a strong victory for the Democrats — which was not the case in 2004. During the last election, the Democrats' worst-case scenario came true: Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry lost; Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle did not win his re-election bid in South Dakota — and the Republicans retained control of the Senate.

Into the spotlight

Reid, who at the time was the Senate's assistant minority leader, was considered a behind-the-scenes-type senator. While he did speak on the Senate floor, he was best known for his knowledge of Senate rules and legislative strategy. He was the floor manager. He ran for re-election in 2004 on the slogan "Independent Like Nevada."

But after that election he became the face of the Senate Democrats.

At the time he was not preparing for a Daschle loss, but Reid quickly scrambled to gain support among his colleagues for the role, and they voted to make him the minority leader.

Quickly, news articles using boxing metaphors — Reid was an amateur boxer in younger days — and mentioning his small hometown of Searchlight, Nev., popped up everywhere.

Stories also mentioned his membership in the LDS Church and questioned how a Democrat who is against abortion and gay marriage would be viewed as a party leader.

"Democrats did not lose because of abortion and gay marriage," Reid said of the last election. "People pretty well accept who I am. It certainly doesn't hurt me."

Reid is the only Democrat among the five Mormons in the Senate, who include Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho; and Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Reid has "already made his peace with the Democratic caucus on those issues."

Sabato said if Reid moves into the majority leader post, his religion most likely will not become an issue, but as with any lawmaker he has "always found you have to see him in the position before you make a judgment."

Brian Darling, director of U.S. Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said Reid has "proven to be a fierce advocate for the Democratic party."

Under the microscope

Since becoming minority leader, controversies surrounding Reid have involved money, whether profits from real estate sales or campaign or other political contributions. Last month, the Associated Press reported that Reid made $1.1 million on a land sale and allegedly did not disclose it properly, which may have violated Senate Ethics Rules.

But Reid said the article was wrong, that he listed the land on his Senate disclosure form every year. He did file an amended form clarifying that he owned the land through a limited liability corporation, but it did not alter this ownership of the land.

There were also questions of donations made to an employee holiday fund at the Ritz Carlton, where Reid and his wife own a condo. Reid made the initial donation from his campaign fund, but a press release sent in October said he used a personal check to put the $3,300 back into the campaign account.

Reid said his lawyers told him such donations were permissible, but he decided to reimburse the campaign "to prevent this issue from being used in the current campaign season to deflect attention from Republican failures."

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Reid racked up $125,000 in expenses at a Las Vegas hotel paid for through a leadership political action committee, or PAC, during the past four years. With the help of PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, the Journal found that the PAC also spent $21,000 on gifts for political supporters, including $3,082 for bracelets and cuff links, $1,000 for art, $1,592 for chocolates, $803 for a pair of iPods, and hundreds of dollars for merchandise at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

Reid's office maintained that the expenses were a "normal part of every fund-raising operation."

The political life

Reid has had a varied political life, one much different from his childhood growing up in Searchlight.

Reid became city attorney in Henderson, Nev., after he graduated from law school; served as a Nevada state assemblyman in 1970 and then became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history, winning as Gov. Mike O'Callaghan's running mate.

He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and moved in 1986 to the Senate, to which he has been re-elected three times. He had a close call in the 1998 election — he only defeated his Republican challenger, John Ensign, by 428 votes. Ensign went on to win his own Senate seat in 2000.

But Reid's life has made him no stranger to close calls.

In August 2005 he suffered a transient ischemic attack, an episode often characterized as a ministroke. He canceled public appearances, and his staff assured the media he was fine, highlighting that Reid does not drink or smoke, behaviors often associated with a stroke.

Between 1977 to 1981, when he was chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, he was the subject of numerous death threats, and at one point his wife found a bomb attached to their car.

When he first learned of his appointment to that panel, Reid said he went to his LDS bishop in Nevada to ask for advice. The church prohibits gambling, and Reid wanted to know if he could do the job. The bishop told him that if Reid didn't take the job, he would consider it himself, to illustrate that there was nothing wrong in taking the position.

"I don't gamble," Reid said. "But gambling is a legal business."

Reid knows the boundaries between his profession and his faith, even to the smallest detail.

In 2005, Mary Ann Akers, a reporter for Roll Call, a publication that focuses on Congress, wrote in her "Heard on The Hill" column about Reid accidentally grabbing the wrong suit jacket in a rush to get out of the green room at CNN and went on live television in an "ugly charcoal gray suit" that belonged to someone else.

Reid's press secretary at the time, Tessa Hafen, who is also Mormon, quickly contacted Akers about a correction. Hafen was not complaining about the story on the wrong jacket — but Akers wrote in her column that Reid had "sipped some coffee," which he had not.

Two days later, Akers wrote another column assuring readers that Reid was not drinking coffee. Reid had told reporters he had been in the green room, where "you can get some fruit, drink coffee ... whatever."

"Just because you 'can' doesn't mean you 'do,'" Akers wrote.


E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com