GOP Targets Reid Early

Senate Leader Bolsters His Standing Back Home

Posted November 3, 2008 at 6:55pm

While America awaits the outcome of today’s historic election, Senate Republican leaders also will be eyeing Nov. 5 — the day they say marks the beginning of their campaign to take out Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2010.

Reid knows it. The veteran Democrat will stage a counterpunch in the form of a conference call Wednesday morning with top Western party leaders to claim credit for his party’s gains in the region this year. He will use the forum as a thinly veiled opportunity to kick off his bid for 2010 — touting his involvement in organizing Nevada’s early presidential caucus, registering record numbers of new Democrats in his state and bringing more attention to an area once ignored by his party’s standard-bearers.

That post-election call, which Reid will host with Sen. Ken Salazar (Colo.), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, comes after four weeks of earnest campaigning for the Senate Democratic leader, who is up for re-election to a fifth term next cycle. Reid, who doesn’t travel home often because of his leadership duties, has been virtually holed up in Nevada since Congress adjourned last month as he plots the course for what is likely to be his most difficult campaign.

“Reid spent last month in the state, laying the groundwork for his re-election,” said his spokesman, Jim Manley. “He’s started campaigning. He’s always anticipated increased attacks against him in cycle. He’s not taking anything for granted.”

Reid didn’t need a reminder that 2010 would be a challenging cycle for him as the top party leader trying to secure another six years in a decidedly swing state. But he got one anyway — watching national Democrats and outside groups funnel millions into Kentucky to try to help upstart Bruce Lunsford knock off his GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The fact they targeted Sen. McConnell has produced extra enthusiasm for Nevada,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a leading candidate to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee next year. “Recruitment begins Nov. 5.”

Cornyn said based on how the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has gone after McConnell this cycle, “there will be a lot of people highly motivated” to take on Reid in 2010. In today’s political atmosphere, Cornyn said, “it’s now sort of standard operating procedure that the leader of the opposing party is going to have a very stiff challenge.”

A senior GOP Senate aide noted that if McConnell faced a hurdle as a Republican running in a conservative state, then Reid — whose favorability ratings have dipped to around 30 percent in the past year — can easily anticipate a tough race as a Democrat running in a competitive state. Plus, history has shown that the party in power often suffers Congressional losses in the midterm elections, the staffer said.

“Reid’s going to have to start campaigning early,” the aide said. “McConnell ran his first ad a year ago. He’ll learn from that. He’ll learn from Daschle that you need to be closer to your state.”

In many ways, Reid has been campaigning for some time. The Majority Leader started laying the foundation for his re-election more than two years ago when he began organizing Nevada’s early presidential caucuses that took place in January. Reid has sought to rebuild the Democratic infrastructure in his home state, an effort he hoped would advance his political fortunes as well those of his party’s presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Wednesday’s conference call with the Western Democratic leaders will serve as a first look at Reid’s upcoming campaign. On it, Reid is expected not only to highlight the changing politics of the region, but also call for a new era of bipartisanship to tackle the pressing issues related to the economy, health care, housing and energy.

Manley said if nothing else, McConnell’s race — on which Reid has sat on the sidelines — “only reinforces the notion that [Reid’s] got a big, fat target on his back.”

Rewind to 2004 when Republican up-and-comer John Thune ousted then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Daschle, who raised $19 million but still lost his seat, struggled for two years trying to lead a liberal- leaning caucus while representing a conservative state in a strong GOP year.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the DSCC, said last week that before then “there had been rules of etiquette … and the rules of etiquette were broken with Tom Daschle.” Schumer later backtracked, however, to say that McConnell would have been a target this year no matter what, saying that, “from the beginning we thought we had a good chance in Kentucky and it proved to be true.”

Even if McConnell survives today’s election — and most polls show that he probably will — the top GOP Senate leader has had to spend millions of dollars and innumerable hours defending his seat. Democrats have kept McConnell so occupied that he’s had little time to help campaign for his imperiled colleagues.

Republicans say they will do the same to Reid, and it begins now. As one GOP Senate strategist put it, “The first six months [next year] will be spent trying to find a credible candidate in Nevada.”

A prominent Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Reid clearly understands the personal stakes, particularly if Democrats enlarge their Senate majority and win the White House later today. Reid will have the added challenge of ushering in a new administration’s agenda, while simultaneously balancing his home state’s politics.

“He fully understands that, and he’s inoculating himself,” the Democrat said. “He has been preparing, and he fully understands he’s going to have a strenuous two years leading the Senate and making sure his re-election is in order.”

National Democrats are going to make sure “he’s well-positioned and well-financed to scare away any significant candidates,” the prominent official said.

On the plus side, Reid, who has $2.8 million on hand, will have no trouble raising money, and as it stands now, the Nevada GOP has a thin bench of challengers. The top contender is Republican Rep. Jon Porter, who is locked in a bitter fight to hold onto his House seat and might not survive tonight’s balloting. Another possible candidate is freshman GOP Rep. Dean Heller, former Nevada secretary of state.

But whomever the recruit, the Republican strategist said the GOP is “coming after Harry either way.”

“Republicans are coming at him to kill him dead. Everything else just is not worth it,” the source said. “There are so few people who can put him in a position to lose, but you can keep him home. It will be money well spent even if a state Senator gets in the race. We’ll have enough money to keep him close and force Reid to get back on a plane to Nevada every weekend.”

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.