The shutdown and debt-limit drama on Capitol Hill saw Senate Democrats united, voting as a bloc with Majority Leader Harry Reid to reject each legislative attack from the House.
But within in that paradigm, four red-state Democrats followed their own playbook, adjusting their response to suit their needs and showing that there’s more than one way to approach reelection in a hostile political environment.
Some made fiery floor speeches aimed at House Republicans. Others lied low, but hammered home the economic effects of the shutdown. All stuck with Reid throughout, defying Republican predictions that they would break ranks and crack Reid’s 54-seat majority.
“Nobody wins in a shutdown, but for red-state Democrats being against it to begin with, that’s something that they don’t have to apologize for,” said a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aide.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., had perhaps the sharpest rhetorical barbs in the bunch. Facing a challenge from conservative Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who voted against the compromise legislation written by Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Landrieu slammed House Republicans.
“No matter what they have said, their actions are irresponsible, reckless, and neither the president nor the Democrats should enter into negotiation with a gun to our constituents’ heads,” she said on the Senate floor soon after the shutdown.
Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas faces freshman GOP congressman and Iraq War veteran Tom Cotton in what could be the toughest Senate campaign of 2014. Pryor’s approach seemed tailored to the political contest he’s facing: He slammed the House for being overly political, then moved to the middle by joining the bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that in the late stages of the crisis tried to pound out an agreement that could clear Congress and win the president’s signature.
“You go down the hall to the House and what you see down there is ‘my way or the highway’ politics,” Pryor said on the floor earlier this month. “My fellow Americans, know it is true that these are dead-end politics. It is leading us nowhere.”
Pryor also appeared on CNN and criticized House Republicans for their role in the shutdown. “We have a small group of Republicans that are kind of driving the train, especially on the House side, and it’s very unfortunate,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum, was Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who largely kept a low profile throughout the shutdown and debt-limit debate. Hagan did rise once to speak on the floor, but unlike Landrieu and Pryor, whose opponents are members of the Congress, Hagan’s opponent is North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Hagan tailored her speech to focus on the pain the shutdown inflicted on her state. Rather than unleash a torrent of incendiary rhetoric, she focused on veterans benefits and medical research.
“So I ask, is it worth putting medical advances and thousands of jobs at risk just to play a tired political game?” Hagan asked on the floor. “No.”
Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska also bypassed political rhetoric to focus on the effects of the shutdown in his home state. On the floor, Begich’s strategy included entering into to colloquies with his red-state colleague, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who recently won reelection, and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
Begich, who’s made his reputation voting as a moderate and focusing on issues important to ruby-red Alaska, even appropriated some of the GOP’s own language in the debate, softening the adversarial tone used by Reid and Democratic leaders.
“As my colleagues on the other side like to say, we are just trying to find a solution,” Begich said last Sunday. “Every day we wait is another day we are shipping jobs overseas, and here is a clear example.”