Reid’s Next Act Tests His Skills Here, Home

Posted April 28, 2008 at 6:33pm

For most Congressional Democrats, 2009 holds the promise of stronger majorities in the House and Senate, and control of the White House for the first time in nearly a decade. But for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the 111th Congress is shaping up to be the most taxing period of his political life as he prepares to navigate the challenges of a re-election campaign, the demands of his leadership post and the wants of a new president.

Reid will begin next year as a top Republican target in an unpredictable state that is solidly in the swing category. He also will be facing his second two-year stint as the Majority Leader against a rookie administration that will either tap him to be its top lieutenant or force him to be its chief adversary to a time-consuming legislative agenda.

Reid will have to maneuver carefully, and even his staunchest allies acknowledge they might have to pinch hit on the floor, in crafting policy or taking on the Democratic fight against the GOP. Senate Democrats also uniformly say their top priority next cycle is ensuring their leader’s political survival.

“They will try to target him,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “But I am sure he will take his re-election seriously and devote a proper amount of time to it. And there are good people on our side to pick up the slack if he needs us.”

“It will be all hands on deck,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who also is up for re-election next cycle. “Every single week, Senate Democrats will find ways to be helpful and supportive of him on the schedule, on legislative issues, whatever he needs. We understand the huge number of hours it takes when you are in a race.”

Reid is one of 15 Democrats up in 2010, but his goal of securing a fifth term has unique complications because of the political landscape in his home state and his status as one of the Democrats’ most prominent figures. Republicans have already promised to take on Reid, aiming to re-create their historical 2004 toppling of Reid’s predecessor, then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and one of Reid’s closest Senate confidants, said he’s well aware of the difficulties confronting Reid during the next two years. Still, Schumer argued confidently that Reid will have no trouble securing another term, while also simultaneously guiding the Senate through another demanding Congress.

“It’s not going to be a problem,” Schumer said. “First, he’s very capable of doing many jobs very well at the same time. Second, he’s already working very hard in Nevada. I am not worried at all.”

Subordinate Support

Worried or not, most Senate Democrats concede Reid will have to carefully parse his schedule in 2009 and 2010 given the premium he’ll be putting on Nevada politics and the time he’ll have to devote to a new administration. Inevitably, a new president –– regardless of party –– will require Congress to spend more days in session than President Bush did in his final two years in office.

“He’s going to have to delegate –– there’s no way he’s going to be able to do it all,” one Democratic Senate strategist said of Reid. “He can spend one weekend here, but he can’t spend more than that.”

With that in mind, many Senate Democrats say Reid probably will have to lean more heavily on his top surrogates, such as Schumer, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) to help carry the load during the 111th Congress. The situation is familiar territory for Reid, who not only took over many of Daschle’s floor duties while the then-Minority Leader was running in 2004, but who also has never shied away from spreading out the workload to the rest of his leadership lineup.

“His handling of the floor has got to change; that will be difficult for him,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said. “The good news is he trusts his leadership team. That will make it easier to divvy up those responsibilities and delegate responsibilities to them.”

These days, Reid primarily makes the time-consuming trek home to Nevada during the Senate’s recess periods, about once every month or two. Reid’s staff insists that his Senate leadership role and his travel schedule will remain the same during the next Congress, even as they concede that he might be heading toward a tough re-election.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said his boss knows what’s ahead, and while he may not be showing it now, he “is concerned about his re-election.” Manley said Reid “has always had to balance his role as a leader and as a Senator,” and the 111th Congress will be no different.

Presidential Pitfalls

The X-factor next year will be in which Senator secures the presidency this November. Democrats and Republicans alike say they expect each of the three remaining contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), will present sweeping plans for Congress to enact. Yet, many also anticipate the trio to show greater deference for their one-time employer, and former colleagues, than did Bush.

Reid’s particular challenge will be working with the Senator turned president to rack up voter-magnet accomplishments, while keeping an eye squarely on Nevada. Reid will have to be mindful of appearing too liberal in siding with a Democratic president, or too ideological in opposing a new Republican executive.

“He’s going to either be carrying the water for Hillary or Obama, or constantly fighting McCain,” a senior Republican Senate aide said.

But an ex-Reid staffer said that if the next president is inclined to negotiate, Reid will be in his element –– helping to cut deals and reach compromise. This one-time aide said that either way, “it won’t be as complicated or as difficult as it has been with the current administration.”

Manley said Reid knew coming into the top Democratic post in 2005 –– first in the minority and now in the majority –– that Republicans would target him. Daschle ended up spending $19 million to try to beat back a challenge from now-Sen. John Thune (R), whose successful campaign was built on charges that Daschle –– as a liberal party leader –– was an “obstructionist” to Bush’s agenda and was out of touch with conservative South Dakota values.

“He vowed when he became leader that wasn’t going to happen to him,” Manley said. “The war room was a small but important demonstration of the fact that he recognizes that Democrats as a whole need to do a better job at managing an aggressive press operation.”

Manley is referring to the Democratic leader’s 3-year-old communications center, dubbed the “war room,” which serves as ground zero for Reid and the Senate Conference’s messaging efforts. The strategic hub is home not only to his national press team but also a home state press secretary, who looks to navigate the tricky waters of keeping Reid’s leadership message in line with Nevada politics.

Daschle never had a similar message operation, which might have led to some of his difficulties reconciling his Minority Leader duties with his South Dakota re-election bid.

Reid’s and Daschle’s political circumstances are far from identical. Reid’s state is centrist, while Daschle’s is firmly Republican. Reid’s personal politics on issues like guns and abortion rights are right of his party, while Daschle’s politics were sometimes out of line with his conservative electorate. Perhaps most importantly, the bench of GOP candidates to field against Reid next cycle is relatively thin, whereas Daschle faced the challenge of a well-known and well-financed rival.

So far, the leading contender to take on Reid in 2010 is third-term Nevada Republican Rep. Jon Porter.

Thune said it is difficult to predict Reid’s political fate, saying: “It depends on if the leader is not in sync with his constituents. Then you face a greater danger of becoming a target like that.”

“The trick is to take your leadership post when you get into cycle and use it to your advantage,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and former top aide to then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.). “Make sure you are staying on the right issues. I don’t see any sign that Reid is out of touch with Nevada.”

Not surprisingly, Reid’s allies and detractors disagree on whether the Majority Leader’s politics have changed since he became the top Senate Democrat three years ago.

Reid has long enjoyed praise for his home-state positions on issues involving water, transportation and the environment, particularly his steadfast opposition to making Nevada’s Yucca Mountain a nuclear waste repository. Yet, the Nevada Democrat has attracted his share of criticism, including for his off-the-cuff remarks, like calling Bush a “loser” or a “liar,” or saying that the “war is lost,” or for his decision last year to oppose the development new coal energy plants in eastern Nevada.

Either way, Republicans will be gunning for a Daschle replay, just as Democrats have done this cycle in going after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell is by no means assured his re-election but has the benefit of serving a conservative state and having amassed an $8 million war chest.

Asked whether he believes Reid will be a target next cycle, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said: “Just ask Tom Daschle or Mitch McConnell –– that’s the best evidence. Leaders are always high on the opposition’s target list.”

Money and Staff Preparations

Reid has made little secret of his re-election plans, going to great lengths last fall to dispel rumors that he was considering retirement after this, his fourth term. It was around that time that Reid hired back his one-time chief of staff Susan McCue as a political consultant, a move that was billed as a 2010 ground-laying maneuver.

Since then, however, Reid has kept much of his re-election politicking at bay. While his personal staff recently has been instructed to make time in Nevada a higher priority, Reid has yet to assemble a formal campaign apparatus nor has he started to raise money in earnest for his race. Those close to Reid predict that McCue will become Reid’s top campaign strategist, either officially or unofficially, while his fundraising machine will kick into higher gear later this year.

“If you start too early, you would show you are nervous,” a former Daschle aide said. “If Reid starts showing signs he’s in trouble, the noise machine is going to pop.”

Reid, who is expected to raise at least $10 million for 2010, had $2.4 million in the bank as of March 31. Reid raised $7 million for his re-election in 2004, which he won 61 percent of the vote –– a more comfortable margin than his some 400-vote victory in 1998 over then-GOP Rep. and now-Sen. John Ensign.

Manley said Reid will be well-funded when his election comes near, saying now his focus is on 2008 and making sure he doesn’t “step over the fundraising operations of his colleagues.”

“It’s not like he’s going to have a problem raising money,” Manley said.

Democrats in Washington and Nevada argue that Reid has some built-in advantages, including that he helped register 50,000 new Democratic voters this year during the state’s January presidential caucuses. That move was viewed as a critical boost for Reid, whose poll numbers dipped to new lows last fall in a state that President Bush carried with 51 percent in 2004.

Yet Reid still has the major hurdle of connecting in Nevada, where the population is transient while growing. There could be a new electorate to which Reid is going to have to make his case, a reality that means having to spend more time in the state and paying greater attention to paid and earned media.

“The challenge for Sen. Reid is the level of growth Nevada has experienced. He’s going to have to do a fair amount of reintroduction so they can get to know him once again or get to know him for the first time,” Reid’s ex-aide said. “He’ll probably be back there more often.”

Ensign, Reid’s one-time rival and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tried to deflect questions on whether he thinks Reid –– now a friend –– can be beat. Instead, Ensign referred to recent Nevada polling that showed Reid’s approval ratings at just more than 30 percent.

“It’s difficult being in a swing state and being a leader, especially in the Senate and especially if you don’t have the White House,” Ensign said. “You have to convince voters back home that you’ve worked for them.”

A ‘Nevada Guy’

Reid acknowledges that during his first two years as Majority Leader, he’s had to take a more partisan bent against an uncompromising Bush administration. Reid told Roll Call in December that his drop in the polls is largely a reflection of Nevadans’ disdain for that political conflict, which he had hoped to pass off by now to the Democratic presidential nominee.

“I’m the face of the Democrats,” Reid said in December. “Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and I share that, and I take a lot of arrows … a lot of the things that I do are very partisan. It’s hard for the people of the state of Nevada to accept me as a partisan person.”

And that could be Reid’s greatest burden, according to one Republican Senator, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. This Senator said Reid has enjoyed strong support from Nevadans even through his mistakes, but the tone he’s had to take as Majority Leader has started to wear on them.

“People in Nevada are disappointed,” this GOP Senator said.

Billy Vassiliadis, a Reid ally who heads the consulting firm R & R Partners in Las Vegas, said Reid has “had to carry the national water for the party, and Nevada is not an extremely partisan state. I think that’s probably one of the issues he’s had to and will have to contend with, but people recognize Harry as being a real Nevada guy.”

But Vassiliadis said Reid has played his cards wisely and is sensitive to Nevada’s priorities. Plus, he said, Nevadans understand and appreciate Reid’s Majority Leader status and what that position can mean for them.

“I do think there is a feeling that nobody in Washington gets us,” he said. “But there is a certain comfort in having Harry Reid back there. There’s a sense of protection.”