Harry Reid talks tough, ramps up for 2016
By: Manu Raju
October 7, 2013 05:00 AM EDT
Republicans are eager for November 2016 — and not just because Barack Obama’s presidency will be in its final days.
It’s when Harry Reid, the man reviled by Republicans for his inflammatory rhetoric and hardball tactics during the government shutdown, could be booted from his Nevada Senate seat.
Reid knows it — and he’s quietly plotting his plans more than three years out.
In an interview from his Senate office last week, the 73-year-old majority leader insisted he’s running for reelection in 2016. He’s ramping up his campaign organization, and he’s getting ready for the onslaught the GOP is preparing to send his way.
Already, he’s begun seeking commitments from aides to stay with him through 2016. He’s spending more time fundraising everywhere from New York to Southern California. And he’s not afraid to issue a warning to a potential GOP opponent, Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who — if he’s reelected next year — will be in the middle of a second term in 2016.
“Hey listen, if he wants to run midterm, let him,” Reid told POLITICO. “I would remind him and everybody else that doesn’t work very well. Anytime anyone who is a governor leaves midterm, it just doesn’t work very well.”
Reid is becoming even more polarizing thanks to his pugnacious stand during the shutdown fight. His strategy is keeping Democrats together, which is no easy task. But removing him from his spot as the powerful majority leader has become a leading Republican campaign pitch in the run-up to the 2014 midterms, two years before he’ll be the top GOP target in the country during his own race.
Whether Reid is simply talking tough to avoid being viewed as a lame duck remains to be seen. He could ultimately change his mind and decide not to run for a sixth term. Or his calculus could change if Republicans regain control of the Senate in 2014 and he loses the majority leader title, which he’s held for more than six years.
But Reid is bullish about Democrats’ prospects in 2014 — even believing the party may pick up seats next year — and he thinks the Republicans’ handling of the government shutdown has only made the GOP weaker.
“This is killing the Republicans,” Reid said.
Asked if he was bluffing about running in 2016, Reid said: “I guarantee you that I haven’t spent all that money [just] to show strength during the shutdown. To have a campaign operation that I have is not easy.”
Thanks to August fundraising swings in Nevada’s Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas as well as Southern California, Reid’s campaign and political action committee account in the third quarter raked in more than $600,000, more than the $407,000 it pulled in a similar period when he was last up for reelection in 2010. And at a similar point in the last cycle, when Reid had pulled in $5.6 million, he’s raised $5.5 million.
“I’ve never ramped down,” Reid said.
It may be hard to believe that Reid will be an even bigger GOP target than he was in 2010, when he pulled off an improbable victory despite suffering rock-bottom approval ratings and a national Republican effort to oust him. But he almost certainly will. Reid has outraged Republicans for his constant derision of the party, using words like “extreme” and “anarchists” to describe conservative Republicans in the House and Senate. He said House Republicans had “lost their minds.” And he’s repeatedly said Republicans need to “get a life” for their relentless drive to gut Obamacare.
His tactics during the shutdown fight have gone even further to make him the scourge of the GOP. Reid has publicly disclosed private conversations he had with House Speaker John Boehner to make the case that the Ohio Republican had backed off an earlier agreement to pass a government funding bill with no policy restrictions attached. After Boehner publicly demanded killing federal dollars for health coverage of lawmakers and their staff, a series of private emails between top Reid and Boehner aides were leaked to POLITICO that detailed Boehner’s secret angling for those very same subsidies.
Not only has Reid ridiculed the GOP strategy to tie Obamacare to the shutdown fight, but he has also refused to schedule votes on House GOP bills to fund popular agencies and programs one at a time. And despite Boehner’s demands, Reid refuses to negotiate with Republicans until they agree to pass a Senate bill to keep the government open until mid-November.
All of which make Republicans want to tear their hair out.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said Reid is the “most uncompromising politician I’ve encountered in the past five years. He’s the guy more than anybody that thwarts progress.”
Asked about some of his rhetoric, Reid seemed to acknowledge his reputation for gaffes but was unapologetic about his tough talk.
“I don’t have a voice like Barry Black, the Senate chaplain,” Reid said. “Sometimes I don’t work hard to choose the right words. I do say what comes to my mind. I have to live with who I am. I’m not going to change.”
But Reid claims he’s not worried if his handling of the crisis has worsened his already anemic poll numbers back home or if it invites a strong prospective GOP challenger in 2016 — whether it’s Sandoval or anyone else.
“I never grieved over fights that are coming. I’m not a worrier,” he said.
And he argued that no objective analysis could conclude that Democrats are at fault for the shutdown given that he agreed to a lower spending level to win the support of Republicans, who later decided to tie the government funding battle to their long-standing demands to overhaul the health care law.
“You and other journalists have a real shortcoming in that you are trying so hard to be fair that you are unfair,” Reid said. “Democrats have had almost nothing to do with the problems here. It’s all Republicans.”
What’s helping Reid in Washington is the fact that Democrats in his 54-member caucus are united in the government funding battle, a dynamic that has not always been the case throughout his tenure as majority leader. Indeed, even red-state Democrats facing tough races next year, like North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, are sticking with Reid.
House Republicans “should pass [the Senate bill], and we should keep the government open,” Hagan said when asked if she agrees with her leadership’s position.
In Nevada, what could affect Reid in 2016 are next year’s state races. While Sandoval is expected to skate to reelection, the race for lieutenant governor may be closer — which could roil the 2016 Senate landscape. Sandoval has endorsed a state senator, Mark Hutchison, who faces a primary challenge from a woman who lost the 2010 GOP nomination to take on Reid: Sue Lowden.
The thinking in Nevada is that Reid’s team will invest enormous resources to defeat the Republican for the lieutenant governor’s race for this reason: If there’s a Democrat in that position, it could be politically unpalatable for Sandoval to give up his governor’s spot to take a seat in the Senate.
“Team Reid is going to go all out to defeat Hutchison because they want to prevent Sandoval from being able to make a decision to run against Reid should he want to run against Reid,” said Jon Ralston, a veteran political analyst in the state. “The problem is they don’t have a candidate they like yet.”
What helped Reid in 2010 was facing a weak GOP candidate, Sharron Angle as well as methodically building an aggressive campaign machine that helped turn out scores of voters. In the interview, Reid boasted that he still has the “best” campaign machine and state party in the country — and he’s staffed up with a bevy of hard-nosed political operatives he calls his “family.”
On the staffing level, his political team from 2010 is largely intact, including well-known operatives in Nevada like Rebecca Lambe and his pollster Mark Mellman. On the official side, longtime Reid hand Shannon Raborn returned to his staff as his southern Nevada director, and he still relies on his politically savvy chief of staff David Krone to spearhead his Senate strategy.
In 2016, Nevada will once again be an early caucus state in the presidential nominating season; it was Reid who pushed to move up the state in the 2008 primary election cycle to help register more Democratic voters — and help himself out in the process. Taken with the Democratic voter registration advantage of about 100,000 — and the state’s increasing Latino population — Nevada is becoming an easier lift for Democrats in the wake of Obama’s two victories there.
“It’s the Republicans’ responsibility to keep Nevada a battleground state, and we just haven’t been able to do that,” said Robert Uithoven, a longtime GOP consultant.
And as he looks ahead to 2016, the changing outlook in Nevada gives the majority leader hope he can pull out another victory — no matter how polarizing he’s become. He boasted that by 2016 an estimated 80 percent of the state could live in Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas and the southern part of the state.
“That’s my base,” he said with a laugh.
But what will undoubtedly be difficult for Reid to balance is leading his caucus when he’s up for reelection — a challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing in his tough reelection bid next year.
Reid, who is helping McConnell’s Democratic opponent next year, declined to comment on the GOP leader’s race — and downplayed the tension in their relationship, saying that it’s “no different than it’s ever been.”
“It’s not as if we go to dinner every week,” he said of McConnell.
But Reid insisted that he won’t have a hard time running his caucus in 2016 while running for reelection.
“I have a lot of weaknesses, I understand that,” Reid said. “But I have a few strengths, and one of them is — no one ever has to guess how I stand on the issue.”