When Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was facing reelection in 1998, The Cook Political Report wrote that he was running an ineffectual campaign with horrible advertising. Not surprisingly, Reid’s aides let us know they didn’t appreciate the analysis and didn’t agree with it. As it turned out, Reid was elected to a third term by the narrowest of margins, beating his Republican challenger (and now Senate colleague) John Ensign by 428 votes, 208,650 to 208,222.
Four years later, Reid was starting work on his next campaign and asked us to come up and see him. In our meeting, he very graciously told us that we had been correct about the shortcomings of his 1998 effort. Reid went on to explain how things were going to be different in 2004. Whatever he did, he did it well, as he ended up all but unopposed that year with no legitimate challenger stepping forward.
Fast-forward to the just-concluded election cycle. One can imagine the Senate majority leader sitting at home a few years ago, wondering which Nevada Republicans would have a good chance of defeating him in 2010 if Democrats were having a bad year. Reid might have come up with six or more names of the GOP’s brightest stars in the Silver State, including Rep. Dean Heller, former Rep. Jon Porter, and now Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval. One could further imagine that Reid would then set off to sweet-talk, cajole, or entice those on the list to stay out of the race, effectively keeping every Republican in the state who was worth a darn from running.
Reid’s campaign was a case study on the value of preparing for the worst.
I have no idea whether Reid sought to keep prominent Republicans from challenging him, but I do know that when the filing deadline passed in March, Reid effectively had three “not-ready-for-prime-time” candidates seeking the GOP nomination. After Sue Lowden rhapsodized about bartering chickens for health care, Sharron Angle won the nod over Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, giving Reid a less-than-formidable opponent. You can’t really blame the tea party for Angle’s loss in November (although feel free to blame it for the debacle in Delaware’s Senate race), as Lowden and Tarkanian would have been equally weak candidates in the general election.
It’s too easy, however, to say that Reid won because he had a second-tier opponent. It’s not that simple. Things weren’t just bad for Democrats in 2010; they were horrific. And Reid, as the Senate’s Democratic leader, saw his own job-approval rating plunge to numbers that made him appear unelectable—in a state with a 14.4 percent unemployment rate in September.
Campaigns do matter, and Reid demonstrated that once again. Unlike so many of his congressional colleagues this year, he did not go into denial mode. He raised tons of money, developed a sharp campaign message, and mobilized Hispanics and others in the Democratic base more adeptly than did most other Democrats. The powerful culinary-workers union moved heaven and earth on Reid’s behalf, and he won a race that at times appeared unwinnable. More impressive to me is that he did so with “none of the above” getting only 2.25 percent of the vote. I had thought that Reid’s only chance was that the none-of-the-above option would get enough votes to siphon support away from Angle, but that’s not what happened.
Incumbents from both parties in both chambers should take note of Reid’s campaign as a case study on the value of preparing well in advance for the worst-case scenario and executing your strategy flawlessly.
His effort earned him “Campaign of the Year” from The Washington Post’s (and former Cook Political Report’s) Chris Cillizza, author of The Fix column.
There is no way at this stage to divine the dominant narrative in 2012. Republicans, conservatives, and tea partiers could go wild in office, and voters could punish the GOP for its overreach. We could still be in a suffering economy, and voters could take it out on the party still holding the White House, unseating even more Democrats. But no matter what happens in the next two years, incumbents who prepare for the worst-case scenario usually don’t regret that course of action.
This article appears in the November 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.