Reid rejects congressional candidate's claim that he told him not run because he's Muslim

If a candidate wanted to run for a prominent office and that person were a Muslim, in this Trumpian world, wouldn’t you advise the prospective officeholder of the attacks that would come?

That was the situation last August when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid met with Jesse Sbaih, a Jordanian immigrant and successful lawyer who had announced he was running for GOP Rep. Joe Heck’s congressional seat, a key swing district and national Democratic target. At the time, Reid was desperately searching for a big-name candidate to run for the seat, having already been rebuffed by the likes of ex-Secretary of State Ross Miller, former water czar Pat Mulroy and others. This coincided with the period when Team Reid was intently wooing Heather Murren, the former Wall Street analyst and philanthropist, to get into the contest. (She eventually declined on Oct. 2.)

On Aug. 25, Sbaih met with Reid and his top political lieutenant, Rebecca Lambe, at the Paris Hotel, where the senator had another event. (He had previously met with Lambe three weeks earlier at Democratic Party headquarters, and she had informed him he should do polling to assess his weaknesses and potential path to win. He did not.)

What happened next is the subject of some dispute, with Sbaih insisting Reid told him not to run because he is a Muslim and tried to buy him off with a presidential commission appointment and Team Reid flatly denying the contender’s religion was the sole reason the senator did not embrace his candidacy and that they simply encouraged him to apply for the federal board. Sbaih's accusations, however, come after he fawned over Reid on "Ralston Live" last year and initially seemed receptive to the appointment.

Reid & Co. obviously realize that how this is spun could be a political problem for the senator, especially because he has publicly been railing about Donald Trump and the GOP’s intolerance for Muslims. Sometimes the cold political calculations behind closed doors are not easily reconcilable with Senate floor screeds.

I’ve confirmed that Sbaih’s religion did come up in conversations as a potential avenue of attack from opponents, but the Henderson lawyer insists Reid went further, saying to him, “Let me blunt. You are not going to be able to win because you are a Muslim.”

Reid’s folks vehemently deny this. Said Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman: “Senator Reid encouraged Jesse to gain valuable experience, like being considered for the state legislature or an important commission, before running for one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country. But Jesse wouldn't listen and instead is spreading lies. He will lose and in the process damage his reputation for future office.”

Reid, after failing to find a big name, settled earlier this year on Jacky Rosen, a Henderson synagogue chief, as his anointed choice. The senator obviously would have loved to see Sbaih bow out to make way for Rosen, also totally unknown. But unless he does by Tuesday, the deadline to withdraw, he is in for the duration, or at least until June.

“Of course, I’m staying in,” Sbaih told me Monday. “I’m going to do what I need to do.”

Sources close to Reid do not deny Sbaih’s religion came up – it would be political malpractice for them not to have raised it – or that they tried to encourage him not to cut his political teeth in a high-profile congressional race and tried to steer him to an Assembly race or to apply for a presidential appointment.  They also were worried about his personal injury practice as fodder for the Republicans, and point out they wouldn’t have encouraged him to run for the Assembly if they were so concerned about his religion.

Could Reid have said something so inartful, so indelicate about his faith in his conversation with Sbaih? The man who has a gaffe catalogue thicker than “War and Peace” will have a hard time getting people to believe he’s not capable of saying it.

But the timing of this coming now reveals a lot about how Sbaih's perspective has changed in half a year since he boasted of meeting with Reid and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Democratic powers that be, from Team Reid to the DCCC, surely have made it difficult for Sbaih to raise much money or hire name consultants. An obviously frustrated Sbaih, who has loaned his campaign $400,000, now has decided to go public with what he says are long-held grievances.

“As an American citizen who deeply loves his country, I am profoundly disheartened and saddened that the Democratic Party is refusing to accept a candidate like me because of my religion and ethnicity. It's distressing to hear that my religion and ethnicity somehow disqualify me from running for a congressional seat despite everything that I have accomplished and contributed to our country and its people,” Sbaih emailed Lambe and fellow Reidite Megan Jones on Sept. 1, shortly after meeting with Reid. (Jones, whose husband used to work with Sbaih, brought him into Reidworld. He originally wanted to run against Rep. Dina Titus in another district, but Jones dissuaded him.)

“I want to clarify again as we have done so multiple times in person, that this was never about the Democratic Party not embracing your ethnicity or religion….it was about how to create a path and a base of support so you could withstand the attacks that we knew would inevitably come from the opposing side,” Jones responded to Sbaih.  “I am profoundly disappointed that you are choosing to ignore the expert advice of so many who wanted to help create a path for you that would ultimately help you in your long term political and professional goals. “

Sbaih did not appear to have any heartburn about the meeting with Reid two weeks later on "Ralston Live" -- fairly gushing about his chat with the senator. “I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with Senator Reid a few weeks ago,” Sbaih said on the program. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Senator Reid. He’s a great Nevadan…It would be an honor to get his endorsement. He’s a great American. He’s been great for Nevada.”

This interview took place only a short time after Sbaih supposedly was mortally offended by the senator raising his religion. And the candidate also did not appear upset about the offer to apply for a $157,000 a year gig with the obscure Election Assistance Commission. Until recently, that is.

“Hi Rebecca, is it possible for me to speak with the person who’s looking into the appointment in order for me to inquire about the sort of options available?” he texted Lambe on Aug. 27.

Indeed, nearly two months later, Reid’s Southern Nevada director, Shannon Raborn, emailed an obviously still-interested Sbaih after a phone call: “As follow up to our conversation, Senator Reid makes a recommendation to the White House for the open position for a Commissioner on the Election Assistance Commission (EAC).  The Washington, DC-based position is Senate-confirmed for a term of 4 years and pays at a Level IV schedule ($157k).”

This is de rigueur for Team Reid and many other political operations – trying to steer someone they don’t think can win a race into another venue. But Sbaih, seeing his money and consultant pool dry up, out of naivete or spite, or perhaps a combination thereof, is now portraying all of this as much more nefarious than he did six months ago. And to the uninitiated, the commission appointment dangling might seem a little sleazy, tantamount to a bribe, although Sbaih clearly considered it at the time before deciding to stay in the contest.

Sbaih, like another congressional race underdog, Lucy Flores in Rep. Cresent Hardy’s district, has latched onto the Bernie Sanders campaign in an effort to don the anti-Estabishment mantle. Getting national publicity about bucking the most powerful man in Nevada may be a way to burnish those credentials even more, although Reid is immensely popular among core Democrats in Nevada.

Team Reid was going to have to spend money to defeat Sbaih anyhow, but this has made that bitter pill even harder to swallow. I wonder if Rosen will use Sbaih’s faith in the race against him, thus proving that Team Reid’s fears were real.