Politics & Policy

Reid on the Ropes

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
He may not even be minority leader after Tuesday.

It looks as if Harry Reid is at high risk of losing any Senate leadership role after Tuesday’s election.

Reid said Saturday that it’s all up to Iowa to determine whether he keeps his job. He told Democratic donors that if Republican Joni Ernst wins her victory, it “would mean . . . that Mitch McConnell would be leader of the United States Senate.” Given that Sunday’s Des Moines Register poll shows Ernst with a seven-point lead over Democrat Bruce Braley, Reid can be forgiven some nervousness.

But Reid may also not even remain minority leader after Tuesday, though Democrats around him exude inside-the-Beltway loyalty to him in public. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 ranking Democrat and a man known for his ambition, told Meet the Press last month that Reid had a lock on the majority leader’s job. But he didn’t extend his optimism to cover what would happen if Democrats suffer a Senate bloodbath on Tuesday and must suddenly anticipate a tough path to regaining Senate control even in 2016, when the electoral map will favor Senate Democrats once again.

Reid himself, normally a picture of blustery self-confidence, has toned down his insistence that he will stay regardless of the electoral outcome. Last year, Roll Call reported that Reid had told them he’d like to stay in leadership till 2022, when he would be 82. Reid indicated to the newspaper that “other Democrats would only get their chance to lead the caucus if they pried the title from his cold, dead hands.” But this year, at a news conference held in September, Reid declined to clarify whether he would stay on as minority leader if his party lost the majority. “I’m not doing any hypotheticals if we lose, because I don’t think we are,” he said.

But lots of Democrats are showing their frustration with Reid on the campaign trail. NBC’s Chuck Todd found that nearly a dozen Senate nominees or incumbents have expressed interest in replacing Reid.

Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Jeanne Sheehan of New Hampshire refuse to back Reid. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana now says she wants to see “who is running.” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia says the country “could perhaps do better in both parties” in terms of leadership. Sam Nunn, the father of Georgia Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn, says his daughter won’t be obligated to back Reid if she wins. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia complains that Reid has been “overprotective” in preventing floor votes on key issues.

That crucial element of Reid’s leadership style — designed to prevent Republicans from forcing Democrats to vote on “gotcha” amendments — has had the unintended consequence of giving Democratic senators running in red states few chances to show any independence from President Obama. Since a whopping 85 percent of the votes that have been held are to confirm appointees, many Democrats have been bombarded with devastating ads noting they’ve backed Obama as much as 99 percent of the time in the past year. “If Democrats see they’ve lost Senate seats because of those ads, the attitude toward Reid’s strategy shifts rapidly,” former Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell told me.

Other Democrats have long expressed despair over Reid’s gaffe-prone speeches (“Sometimes I say the wrong thing” he admitted this year in a classic understatement) along with his general inability to speak clearly. His Senate-majority PAC ran a much-criticized radio ad in North Carolina linking the GOP candidate to the death of Trayvon Martin. A former aide to Senator Schumer outlined another source of frustration to The Hill: “There is a dissatisfaction among a lot of Democrats that we’re not doing anything, and they spend a lot of money to get elected. They spend months and months on the phone raising money to get elected, and the job is not satisfying. Nearly all these people came here to get something done, and that’s what they want to do.”

The partisan battle to convince voters that one side is solely to blame for D.C. gridlock is an old one, and Harry Reid has tried hard this year to pin responsibility on his counterpart, Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker John Boehner. But if the polls are right, Reid is about to lose that argument and the majority leader’s job. Failure is an orphan in politics, and Reid could become the scapegoat for his party’s losses and be persuaded by colleagues to gracefully also decline the minority leader’s job. After all, it will be a lot harder for Reid to win reelection in Nevada in 2016 at age 76 without the clout of being majority leader. In his five elections to the Senate, Reid has won more than 50.2 percent of all the votes only once — in 2004.

Should Reid lose all leadership roles this month, it would be fitting. The last Democratic Senate leader to be forced out was Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who tried to blame George W. Bush for D.C. gridlock but was rejected by his home-state voters. Reid’s fall from power, if it occurs, will be a strong sign that even his fellow Democrats have had enough of his take-no-prisoners style. Tuesday’s election may prove that his attitude — along with the Obama administration’s competence deficit — isn’t a big hit with voters.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review.

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