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Reid’s Shop Reorganizing for 2010

Senate Democrats Redesign Strategy, Message

Senate Democrats are shifting full-throttle into campaign mode and are midway through a major redesign of Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) strategic policy and public relations operations.

“We sat down and said what can we do to make this more effective, serving the members in an election year,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) explained.

Over the past four months, Senate Democrats — from Reid to the rank and file to leadership staff — have been furiously trying to craft a better offensive strategy for their floor operations as well as over the airwaves and in print. They’ve begun coordinating the leadership policy and communications teams, as well as working to ensure Senators are coordinating among themselves. The move comes after 17 months of largely playing defense against an aggressive GOP minority that has been intent on denying Democrats legislative and messaging victories.

And with just six months to go until the midterm elections — which could prove injurious for the majority — Democratic leaders realized time was of the essence.

“I think that there was a very strong sense from a lot of us that unless we institutionalized a capacity to respond effectively, just relying on spontaneous events or one-off pieces of good fortune wasn’t going to do the trick, and it wasn’t Harry’s failing,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said last week. “It was the Senate caucus’ institutional failing, and when we brought it to [Reid’s] attention, he and [Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles] Schumer [N.Y.] and Sen. Durbin were very quick to say, ‘You know, you’re right. Let’s try to work our way through this, and do it in a sensible way.’”

It all began late in December. The Senate debate on health care reform was in full swing, and while Democrats were poised to win the final vote, they were getting a serious beating from Republicans on the public relations front.

So one evening around Christmas, freshman Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he “wandered” into Reid’s office to hand-deliver a Christmas gift and a letter laying out his concerns and ideas for how to turn Democrats’ fortunes around.

Begich said he and Reid talked for nearly 45 minutes about the need to “focus on messaging” and adopt a more campaign-style approach to the daily operations of the Senate.

Begich said Reid was “receptive and interested” in the ideas he brought to the table, and Reid gave him the go-ahead to start fomenting some change.

The first concrete result of that conversation came on Feb. 3, when Democrats met at the Newseum for their annual retreat. Part of Begich’s pitch that December night had been to give Members a private forum for expressing themselves, and Reid tapped the Alaskan along with Whitehouse, Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.), and Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), as moderators of the conversation.

After President Barack Obama took televised questions from Senators, Members began to vent their frustrations behind closed doors about the loss of their filibuster-proof majority — which resulted after the January special election win of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — and why the health care debate leading up to that electoral loss had been such a political disaster.

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