Reid Runs With Two Playbooks

He Acts Lax as Race Heats Up

Posted October 16, 2009 at 6:40pm

Even as Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) jets off for high-profile fundraisers with the vice president and launches his first round of campaign ads at home, the powerful Majority Leader continues to appear nonchalant in the halls of the Capitol about the danger of losing his seat next year.

And despite the political minefield that is health care reform, Reid has unflinchingly taken the lead role in both negotiating and shepherding a historic bill through the Senate this year — a position that his GOP opponents undoubtedly will try to use to their advantage.

“He is like ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ He’s unflappable and focused,— one former Senate leadership aide said. “It’s not like he does any hand-wringing about the campaign … because he’s gone through tight races in the past. He knows what he needs to do to win.—

Unlike other vulnerable Members, Reid does not appear to be trying to avoid contentious issues or modify his positions on key issues. And he’s only traveling to Nevada roughly twice a month. But he did start airing two campaign ads last week aimed at emphasizing what he can deliver for his state as the Majority Leader, and he’s been padding his campaign coffers with millions of dollars. As of Sept. 30, Reid had $8.7 million on hand.

“Is he worried? He’s not going to show it. But has he already started running ads? Oh yeah,— said veteran Reid observer Eric Herzik, who heads the political science department at University of Nevada-Reno.

Herzik said Reid doesn’t have to reinvent himself to secure a fifth term but has little room for error. “He can’t make any mistakes,— he said.

Given his painfully low favorability ratings in Nevada — 38 percent in the most recent public poll — many political observers wonder whether Reid could be headed for a defeat much like his predecessor, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.). Daschle spent $19 million in 2004 but still lost to challenger and now-Sen. John Thune (R).

Reid’s defenders point out that Daschle was accused of losing touch with South Dakotans and waffling on his position on abortion, among other things. Reid has not yet attempted to give himself a policy makeover, and he doesn’t appear to be poised to do so, they say. However, Reid has admitted in the past that Nevadans don’t take kindly to the highly partisan nature of his Majority Leader post, which was particularly problematic when then-President George W. Bush was in office.

“He’s flexible and pragmatic. He’s not going to reinvent himself,— the former Senate leadership aide said.

Unlike Daschle, Reid has the benefit of a Democratic president rooting for him — and campaigning for him — and the social issues that were Daschle’s Achilles’ heel in a red state do not appear to be a factor in Reid’s case.

Instead, Reid’s biggest troubles these days appear to stem from Nevada’s economic woes; the state has some of the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the country.

But the lessons from Daschle’s ordeal have not been lost on Reid.

“He has been preparing for a tough re-election for years,— one Reid aide said. “This has been on everyone’s mind for a long time. Republicans made it clear when Reid became leader that he was going to be a target.—

Still, Reid left town Thursday night to attend a $2,400-a-plate breakfast fundraiser Friday with Vice President Joseph Biden even though thorny intraparty negotiations on the Senate’s health care bill had just begun.

Aides said Reid would likely have not left at such a crucial time if it weren’t for his re-election race and the fact that Biden was scheduled to appear with him. However, most aides said that this weekend was destined to be about staff work on the health care bill and that principals, such as Reid, were unlikely to meet anyway.

“It’s affecting him in little ways, but it really isn’t affecting his job as leader or the policies he’s pursuing,— one Senate Democratic aide said.

Reid’s composure in the face of such pressing political concerns has clearly impressed rank-and-file Democrats.

“I’m not that worried about his re-election. I think he’ll do fine,— one Democratic Senator said. “Without an opponent, you’re always running against yourself. It’s difficult to run against yourself.—

Indeed, no top-tier challenger has emerged to take on Reid, but at least eight Republicans are running in the June 2010 primary to go head-to-head with him.

The Democratic Senator said Reid is juggling the job of leader with his tough re-election adroitly.

“He’s trying to be the leader. It’s very difficult to be leader in the midst of your own re-election, but Harry is the master at this,— the Senator said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, “I’ve never seen anybody quite like that — be so oblivious.—

As he juggles his re-election and the weight of leading historic health care negotiations, those who know Reid said he is acting no different behind closed doors than he does in front of the cameras

“What you see publicly is what you get privately,— the former Senate leadership aide said.

Asked last week whether the health care debate was worth losing his job over, Reid said: “Everything is going well in Nevada. We have an economy that’s very difficult in Nevada, and we all know that. But it’s going to get better there. … As far as all the work that we’ve done, all my polling numbers are fine. They’re not from a newspaper in Nevada that you guys tend to focus on. All my polling numbers are fine. I’m continuing to do the best I can for the people of this country and the people of Nevada.—

Poll results from a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research/Las Vegas Review-Journal survey released Oct. 11 show that Reid continues to trail two relatively unknown Republican candidates — former state Sen. and ex-Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden and real estate developer Danny Tarkanian.

Reid’s campaign contested those numbers, however, saying they have internal polls showing him ahead of the GOP competition.

Herzik said one reason for Reid’s cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor is the fact that he has faced tough re-election battles in the past — and won.

“Most politicians never have a race that’s been decided by 50,000 or 60,000 votes,— Herzik said. “Harry Reid’s had three of them.— That includes his 1998 contest against Republican John Ensign, which was decided by just 428 votes. Ensign is now the state’s junior Senator, having won an open seat in 2000.

The early favorites in the Republican field this year are Lowden, who resigned her post as state party chairwoman at the end of September, and Tarkanian, son of legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

But Reid has made light of his challengers, noting that the primary field is crowded and that his opponents will be beating up on each other until June of next year.

Nevertheless, Reid’s campaign has been aggressively raising money and has already signed on the full complement of campaign consultants for polling, media and mail. A new deputy communications director joined the team earlier this month.

Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall said the impetus for Reid’s first ads — launched Thursday — is the number of new Nevada voters. Nearly one-third of the state’s registered voters moved into the state since Reid was last on the ballot in 2004.

“It’s important that the hundreds of thousands of new Nevada voters understand that Sen. Reid is fighting every day to deliver for his home state, leveraging his leadership position to turn the economy around and creating thousands of good-paying Nevada jobs,— Hall said.

Meanwhile, Reid has already been able to turn the health care debate to his advantage after Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) unveiled his version of the legislation last month. Within a day, Reid had secured a promise to exempt Nevada and other economically distressed states from increased Medicaid matching funds under the measure.

After securing the Medicaid change, Reid circulated an e-mail to supporters touting Senate GOP leadership complaints that he was “leveraging my position as Majority Leader to deliver for Nevada.— Reid supporters crowed that Republicans in Washington, D.C., were undercutting the Nevada GOP’s contention that Reid has not used his considerable power to deliver for the state.

Reid’s campaign also appears mindful of the dangers of being Majority Leader and being too closely linked to the failures — real or perceived — in Washington.

With that in mind, the campaign is working feverishly to convince observers that the stimulus package, which Reid helped push through, is contributing to a turnaround in the state’s hard-hit economy. After the Biden fundraiser Friday, the vice president and Reid held an event touting the jobs created by the stimulus.

But Republicans are prepared to challenge Reid’s assertion that Nevada can’t afford to get rid of him.

“That’s always been Reid’s pitch — Nevada voters, you empower me, I’ll empower you,— Republican strategist Robert Uithoven, an adviser to Lowden, told Roll Call last month. “He has gained this power, but he’s been really the only one to benefit from this deal.—