If Democrats Lose the Senate, Harry Reid Deserves the Blame

The Senate majority leader’s aggressive tactics have backfired, threatening his hold on leadership.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Committee luncheon January 14, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Reid said he hoped the Senate can vote on the $1.1 trillion spending bill on this Friday. 
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Josh Kraushaar
Aug. 13, 2014, 1:47 a.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id is hav­ing a sum­mer like his base­ball idol, Na­tion­als out­field­er Bryce Harp­er. His polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion isn’t liv­ing up to the hype, he’s strik­ing out as he’s tried to in­ter­vene in pivotal Sen­ate con­tests, and there’s a grow­ing chance he’ll be sent to the minor­ity at the end of the year. (Harp­er, for all his struggles, looks like he’s avoided that worst-case out­come.)

For all the in­tern­al Re­pub­lic­an Party di­vi­sions, the GOP’s party com­mit­tees and al­lied out­side groups have over­come their biggest chal­lenge en­ter­ing the year. They’ve suc­cess­fully nav­ig­ated in­cum­bents and favored Sen­ate can­did­ates through dif­fi­cult primar­ies, avoid­ing the specter of ter­min­ally weak can­did­ates emer­ging in battle­ground races. The same can’t be said for Demo­crats, who frittered away op­por­tun­it­ies in South Dakota and Montana be­cause of in­tern­al con­flicts and botched man­euv­er­ing. Mean­while, Demo­crat­ic at­tempts to in­ter­vene in Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate primar­ies haven’t worked, de­priving sev­er­al Demo­crats of the chance to run against weak chal­lengers. Re­id’s fin­ger­prints are over all those moves, with his ma­jor­ity on the line.

“Re­id loves to meddle in oth­er races, es­pe­cially when it in­volves him. I dubbed him the med­dler in chief many years ago, though he’s much more ad­ept in med­dling in his own races than the out­side ones,” said vet­er­an Nevada polit­ic­al ana­lyst Jon Ral­ston. “He thinks he knows bet­ter than any polit­ic­al con­sult­ant, and he doesn’t trust the polls.”

The Demo­crat­ic stumbles haven’t got­ten as much at­ten­tion be­cause they’ve mostly taken place be­hind the scenes. Ap­poin­ted Sen. John Walsh’s ab­rupt with­draw­al from the Montana race in the wake of pla­gi­ar­ism charges drew out­sized cov­er­age last week, but un­der­played was Re­id’s own in­volve­ment in the failed scheme. Wor­ried about the party’s abil­ity to hold re­tir­ing Sen. Max Baucus’s seat, Re­id helped en­gin­eer Baucus’s ap­point­ment to be­come U.S. am­bas­sad­or to China so Walsh could boost his stature in the Sen­ate. At the time, Walsh was Montana’s little-known lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor and a Sen­ate can­did­ate, but Demo­crats be­lieved that if he held the po­s­i­tion of sen­at­or for a year, voters would view him more cred­ibly. (Montana Gov. Steve Bul­lock, a Demo­crat, didn’t in­ter­view any­one for the seat, draw­ing cri­ti­cism for the se­cret­ive nature of the ap­point­ment.)

The move back­fired badly, after The New York Times re­vealed that Walsh pla­gi­ar­ized his thes­is pa­per for the Army War Col­lege. With Walsh out of the race and few cred­ible can­did­ates will­ing to run, Demo­crats now ac­know­ledge that the seat is all but lost. It would have been a chal­lenge to hold re­gard­less, but the elab­or­ate ef­forts made on Walsh’s be­half demon­strate how im­port­ant the Sen­ate race was to the party’s hopes. Without a com­pet­it­ive con­test, Re­pub­lic­ans are already halfway to­ward pick­ing up the six seats ne­ces­sary for the ma­jor­ity.

The oth­er one of the three seats that Demo­crats mis­handled is in South Dakota, where Demo­crats once held hopes for con­test­ing the seat. Re­id ag­gress­ively worked to re­cruit former Rep. Stephanie Her­seth Sand­lin in the race, be­cause she was one of the few Demo­crats who could run a com­pet­it­ive race in the con­ser­vat­ive state. But Re­id was un­able to per­suade former Daschle aide Rick Wei­l­and to drop out of the race, and Her­seth Sand­lin passed on the con­test. An­noyed by the out­come, Re­id went so far as to cri­ti­cize his own party’s can­did­ate even after he locked up the nom­in­a­tion.

The Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment, like their GOP coun­ter­parts, can mis­fire when try­ing to con­trol events from Wash­ing­ton.

The races show that the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment, like their GOP coun­ter­parts, can mis­fire when try­ing to con­trol events from Wash­ing­ton. Re­id over­es­tim­ated the level of sup­port Walsh had in his home state, and he didn’t do enough vet­ting to re­veal his pla­gi­ar­ism prob­lems. And in South Dakota, Re­id un­der­es­tim­ated the depth of lib­er­al grass­roots dis­con­tent to­ward Her­seth Sand­lin, who was ac­cused of be­ing a mod­er­ate sel­lout by the party’s small but vo­cal base.

Re­id’s struggles haven’t been lim­ited to the Demo­crat­ic side. He’s also failed to achieve one of his sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ments in 2010 and 2012—get­ting Re­pub­lic­ans to nom­in­ate their weak­est can­did­ates by med­dling in cer­tain primar­ies. One of Re­id’s most suc­cess­ful in­ter­ven­tions came on his own be­half in 2010, when his cam­paign at­tacked his most cred­ible chal­lenger, Sue Lowden, dur­ing the primary. Re­pub­lic­ans ended up nom­in­at­ing state As­semb­ly­wo­man Shar­ron Angle, an arch­con­ser­vat­ive who pre­dict­ably ran a dis­astrous cam­paign. Demo­crats re­peated the tac­tic in Mis­souri in 2012, with a Re­id-aligned su­per PAC air­ing ads in the primary that hit wealthy busi­ness­man John Brun­ner, the GOP’s favored chal­lenger to Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill. Todd Akin won the closely con­tested nom­in­a­tion, and a once-doomed Mc­Caskill cruised to vic­tory.

“Get­ting in­volved in Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies was un­usu­al and showed that Re­id was not afraid to mix it up and get in the middle of things,” said former Re­id ad­viser Jim Man­ley.

But this year, the res­ults have been dif­fer­ent. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC, run by former Re­id Chief of Staff Susan Mc­Cue, spent more than $2.2 mil­lion in the North Car­o­lina Sen­ate primary to op­pose Re­pub­lic­an Thom Tillis, hop­ing to at least push him in­to a run­off against a tea-party-aligned chal­lenger. Tillis won the nom­in­a­tion out­right. In Alaska, the Put Amer­ica First su­per PAC (mostly fun­ded by Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC) has spent nearly $4 mil­lion in ads at­tack­ing GOP Sen­ate front-run­ner Dan Sul­li­van in hopes of wound­ing him, but he re­mains favored to win the GOP primary later this month. The ads have den­ted their pop­ular­ity, but Re­pub­lic­ans have passed through the primary sea­son without nom­in­at­ing any un­qual­i­fied nom­in­ees. (The Re­id-con­nec­ted Pat­ri­ot Ma­jor­ity PAC also spent money to in­ter­vene in two Re­pub­lic­an House primar­ies, both un­suc­cess­fully.)

Mean­while, Re­id is the mas­ter­mind be­hind the Demo­crats’ strategy of ty­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to the Koch broth­ers, an un­con­ven­tion­al strategy that’s been em­braced by lead­ing cam­paigns across the coun­try. Demo­crats are hop­ing their at­tacks against the deep-pock­eted, GOP-sup­port­ing busi­ness­men will per­suade voters that GOP can­did­ates are be­hold­en to a policy agenda ca­ter­ing to the richest Amer­ic­ans. But at­tacks against se­cret­ive money­men are usu­ally the last refuge of a party without is­sues to run on. In 2006, Re­pub­lic­ans lamely tried to make Demo­crat­ic donor George Sor­os an is­sue in the midterms. They lost con­trol of both houses of Con­gress that year. And in 2010, Pres­id­ent Obama made the Su­preme Court’s Cit­izens United rul­ing a cent­ral is­sue in the midterms, call­ing the in­creased flow of out­side money a threat to Amer­ic­an demo­cracy. That year, Amer­ic­an Cross­roads founder Karl Rove was the Demo­crats’ boo­gey­man.

“He’s laid down the strategy he’s hop­ing people would fol­low. You’ve got to have a foil, and you have to have something to con­trast with. It’s one of the old­est tricks in the book,” said Man­ley.

While the midterm elec­tions are emer­ging as a ref­er­en­dum on Pres­id­ent Obama’s per­form­ance, they’re also provid­ing a ver­dict on the ef­fic­acy of Re­id’s tac­tics. Pub­licly, Re­id is dis­missive of the pos­sib­il­ity that Re­pub­lic­ans could re­gain the ma­jor­ity. Privately, he must know that his chal­lenges shap­ing the elec­tions to his lik­ing are re­lated to the prob­lem­at­ic po­s­i­tion his party faces this Novem­ber.


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