Senate Democrats lost at least six seats on Tuesday and significantly weakened their majority. But even in defeat, they feel some sense of victory having survived what could have been a blowout; Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was able to eke out a fifth term, and the party held on to seats in West Virginia, Colorado and California (Washington’s Senate race remained too close to call). Reid’s victory also averted a potential divisive leadership fight for Majority Leader between Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
“Almost anytime you win one you’re not supposed to, it gives a boost,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
In a post-election conference call with the Democratic caucus, Senate leaders tried to impress upon their rank-and-file Members that they may be down, but they are not out. Few pundits projected the Democrats would lose the Senate in Tuesday’s balloting, but many forecasted greater GOP gains and most predicted Reid would lose to tea-party-inspired challenger Sharron Angle.
Several Senators said that they were urged Wednesday to empathize with voter discontent but that they should not see the results as a reason to cave in to any and all GOP demands.
“The voters have spoken. We need to listen. We need to be gracious,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said of the private call. He added, “At the same time, we should recognize that we’re not operating from a position of weakness,” given that Democrats still hold the White House and the Senate majority.
Reid’s win appeared crucial to improving the mood among Senate Democrats, making them feel that they still have a strong hand to play next year.
“The election was a battle, and the sort of symbolic crest of that battle was Nevada,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a phone interview. He added that Reid’s victory means, “We can move through the lame duck united and also through next year united.”
Likewise, there was a palpable sense of relief in Reid’s campaign headquarters in Nevada on Tuesday night when he was declared the winner; even Reid seemed to recognize he’d narrowly averted an early retirement.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said a visibly elated and beaming Reid as the crowd chanted, “Harry, Harry, Harry,” and “Si se puede,” Spanish for “Yes we can.” Responded Reid: “Yes we did.”
Reid’s Democratic colleagues were especially relieved to have avoided a battle to succeed him. Both Durbin and Schumer quickly declared their loyalty to Reid on a call with reporters, and no other Senators are expected to challenge him as Majority Leader at the Nov. 16 leadership elections.
Though Senate Democrats avoided the bloodbath that was visited upon their House counterparts — Republicans netted at least 60 seats in Tuesday’s elections — the difficulties facing the chamber in the aftermath of the vote were still on display Wednesday afternoon, as Republicans and Democrats dared the other to defy the voters’ will.