All Senate Democratic eyes will be on Nevada on Tuesday as Members anxiously wait to hear whether Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) ekes out a fifth term or falls to Republican Sharron Angle.
But don’t expect his would-be successors to immediately launch campaigns to shore up support for his leadership job. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) have learned from history that it’s best to stand down until it is absolutely clear that there’s a race to be had.
Democratic sources said neither Durbin nor Schumer — believed to have been angling to succeed Reid for months — will begin making calls to rank-and-file Democrats for support before a Reid defeat is officially called. And if the race is close enough for a recount, it’s a safe bet that both men will hold off scouring the caucus for votes until a final ruling is made or someone concedes, sources added.
Trying to take Reid’s job before he’s declared the loser would look unseemly, especially if he ends up pulling out a narrow win, as some pundits are predicting. And if Reid does win, sources said neither Durbin nor Schumer — nor any other Democrat — is likely to challenge him for the job, despite expectations that Senate Democrats could lose eight or more seats before the night is over.
But if Reid loses, recent history shows that potential successors who are too quick to act could find their odds plummet.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) learned that lesson the hard way in 2004 after then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) lost a close race to now-Sen. John Thune (R).
Democratic sources said Dodd and his staff began calling Senators to ask for votes before the race had been officially called for Thune. Even those who would have been natural supporters of Dodd were turned off, one Senate Democratic source noted. Dodd previously lost a race for Minority Leader to Daschle by one vote in 1994.
Though Dodd faced an uphill climb in 2004 against then-Minority Whip Reid, Dodd’s bid was essentially over before it began, sources said. The day after Daschle lost, Dodd told CNN, “I really decided that I can better serve my party and my state by staying out of the race.”
That day, Reid announced he had commitments from enough Senators to take over as Minority Leader.
Of course, Reid indicated in his book “The Good Fight” that if you want to be leader, you can’t wait too long to begin calling Members. He acknowledged that he began reaching out to the caucus before Daschle had conceded but after the race had been called for Thune.
“Tom Daschle was like a brother to me, I told them, but time was too short to hold a wake,” Reid wrote of his early morning effort on Nov. 3, 2004. “We had to get organized, and fast.” Daschle conceded that afternoon.
But just because Durbin and Schumer aren’t likely to be making calls until the results are in doesn’t mean they haven’t given Members plenty of material for evaluating their dedication to them and their fitness to lead.