Has conservative euphoria over Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s toppling begun to subside? Hope so, because here’s a reality check:

His supposedly “mild-mannered” replacement, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, could become a bigger headache for Republicans and conservatives than Daschle ever was. He’s misunderstood by the opposition, and the political machine he built in Nevada provides great insight into what may happen nationally.

I know from experience: I’ve been on his bad side and lived to tell about it only because of a lucky career break.

In 1996, after a stint as a radio talk-show host in California, I was hired to host the afternoon drive program at Reno’s primary news/talk radio station, KOH-AM. Its news anchors, rare longtime locals in a transient state, were quick to help acquaint me with Nevada’s quirky political culture.

I drove all over the area to meet various political leaders, but found most had little idea why they should spend time with the new kid on talk radio. The medium’s nationwide impact just hadn’t registered despite the 1994 election results.

Before I even got started, though, I encountered Sen. Harry Reid. Steps ahead of the others in understanding talk radio’s impact, he visited the station regularly to tape on-air commentaries. Listeners would complain the Democrat was getting free airtime without Republican responses, but the feature continued. It wasn’t a case of media bias, as ours was a rare news operation almost free of known liberals. Rather, it was a testament to Reid’s power in the state: Don’t mess with me if you know what’s good for you.

My first crime apparently was not to have him as a regular guest on my show, lobbing softball questions Larry King-style, as had been done previously. It was like refusing to pay protection money to local goons in a tough neighborhood.

Worse, I went after him on the air, attacking positions, votes, his partisan nature and most of all ties to southern Nevada’s fat-cat special interests. Since he was one of many I criticized, including Republicans, I didn’t realize the severity of the transgression. Some of the other targets didn’t seem to be paying attention. Why would a U.S. senator? I was na?ve; he certainly was keeping tabs.

After spending a program lambasting Reid over a front-page Wall Street Journal story connecting him to a controversial land exchange involving Del Webb Corp., Reid and his staff finally took the gloves off. They demanded tapes of the show, threatened litigation and personally attacked me in a Las Vegas Review-Journal story. Station management publicly downplayed the pressure placed by Reid and his staff to get me off the air, but what was going on behind the scenes was less clear.

As luck would have it, at the same time, I was grabbed by a Seattle station for a similar position and left just as the kitchen got too hot. Had that not come through, he might have succeeded in yanking an opponent from the airwaves. I’m glad I didn’t stick around to find out.

Let’s shatter some myths: One, he isn’t the bipartisan-division-healer the press has made him out to be. His recent mean-spirited slam against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on “Meet the Press” ought to shatter this faulty perception.

Two, the low-key image he’s created is exactly how he wants to be seen. It’s to disguise a very experienced operative in the art of political hardball, a skill developed across years of getting Nevada’s good ol’ boys to do exactly what he needed.

Most of all, he isn’t a moderate (or laughingly, a “conservative” as the New York Times labeled him recently). Aside from some pro-life positions held until recently, due to his Mormon faith, his voting record is liberal.

This hasn’t wavered: In 1996, Americans for Democratic Action, a leftist group, gave Reid a solid 85 out of 100 approval rating based on his votes. The American Conservative Union consistently rates him in the single or low double digits on a scale where 100 reflects full agreement on bills. He’s not far from Ted Kennedy territory. National Journal has given him liberal marks especially on economic and foreign policy issues. Waffling on the abortion issue to appease the party base is the one recent change.

Reid doesn’t give a strong first impression and you wouldn’t notice him walking toward you in even the lightest of pedestrian traffic. But I think that’s just the way he wants it. Harry’s busy consolidating power and working on media control at the same time he’s characterized as unassuming. If he attempts to reinstate the FCC’s former Fairness Doctrine to muzzle talk radio once and for all, I will be the least surprised person in the country.

So, just in case this hasn’t yet happened, it’s time to clean up the paper plates and leftover cake from the Adios Daschle party and take his replacement seriously before he has a chance to do nationally what he did with ease in his home state.

Brian Maloney, a longtime radio talk-show host and writer, has hosted programs in Washington state, Nevada, California and as a frequent substitute in Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City and around the country. A resident of Cape Cod, Mass., he can be reached at [email protected] and maintains a blog at http://radioequalizer.blogspot.com.

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