Harry Reid set to lead Democrats, in majority or not
By: Manu Raju and John Bresnahan
April 3, 2014 05:05 AM EDT
Harry Reid says he’s ready to return as Senate Democratic leader — win or lose the majority this November — so long as his colleagues are ready to support him.
He may get his wish.
A wide cross section of the Senate Democratic Caucus said in interviews that they are willing to back Reid as either majority or minority leader in the next Congress — no matter how controversial the Nevada Democrat has become as part of the furious battle for control of the chamber this fall.
Even if Democrats lose the majority, Reid’s top deputies and potential successors, including Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington, are already committing that they will get behind the five-term Nevadan if he were to run as minority leader.
Reid’s support remains solid in part because most Senate Democrats blame the White House — not him — for their increasingly tenuous hold on power.
Boosting his standing with colleagues, Reid is on a relentless fundraising drive to help raise money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Senate Democrats’ main super PAC, the Senate Majority PAC. The leader is barnstorming the country from Orlando, Fla., to San Francisco, dialing for dollars and helping raise roughly $2 million for his party committee — all as if his own seat were on the line this fall.
If Democrats suffer a bloodbath in November, their party may seek a change at the top — but right now, there’s little appetite for a leadership fight even in difficult political times.
“Absolutely,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, a vulnerable Louisiana Democrat facing voters this fall, said when asked if she would back Reid as leader no matter the outcome of the November elections. “We all share in success, we all share in the failures; we’re a team. But Harry Reid has tremendous respect of members of our caucus. … I don’t believe that he would be challenged in our party for leadership until he’s ready to step aside.”
The Democratic consensus shows how high the stakes are this year, with voters going to the polls in states from West Virginia to Montana — effectively deciding whether to stay the course with Reid or elevate Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell if he survives his own reelection challenge in Kentucky.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s politically popular for Democrats to publicly back Reid. For many Democrats, it’s politically beneficial to showcase independence from their party, particularly as Reid’s hard-nosed leadership style has become a chief GOP rallying cry. Several at-risk Democrats in 2014, and some who represent red states, weren’t ready to entertain questions on whether they’d vote for Reid as leader next Congress — something that would give ammunition to Republicans eager to tie vulnerable Democrats to their polarizing leader.
“First up, my job is to get reelected,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said when asked about Reid. Asked again what he would do if he wins reelection in the fall, Begich deadpanned: “I think I answered your question. … The decision by the caucus gets decided after the elections.”
“Oh, I’m not going to speculate on that,” added Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who faces a potentially tough race this year in New Hampshire against former GOP Sen. Scott Brown.
It’s certainly still feasible that a disastrous outcome on Election Day changes Senate Democrats’ minds about whether to reelect Reid as their party’s leader, especially if a number of the 16 Democratic incumbents running for reelection don’t return.
Reid himself has signaled no intention of stepping down, saying repeatedly in interviews that he would run for majority or minority leader as long as he has the support of his caucus. He has said he would even run for reelection in November 2016 — even though he’ll be nearly 77 years old at that time, when some believe he’ll call it quits instead.
But even though several Democrats were noncommittal, no Democrat appears ready to dump the Nevada Democrat altogether, a remarkable feat given the nine tumultuous years that Reid has been leader — all while emerging as one of the biggest lightning rods in Washington. It’s a sign that Reid has effectively played the Senate inside game and established trust with his fellow Democrats — even if his fiercely partisan and increasingly combative leadership style sometimes rubs them the wrong way.
“Yeah,” Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, another Democrat facing a tough race, said when asked if he’d back Reid again. “It’s up to him on whether he wants to do it.”
“Harry Reid is our leader, and I certainly do support Harry,” said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). “And I have a huge race going on right now, and I will be victorious. And I will be back next year. And we can talk all about that then.”
But Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who doesn’t face voters until 2018, said flatly, “I don’t know” when asked if he’d back Reid if Democrats lose the majority.“This place has got to work.”
Still, asked if he blamed Reid for the party’s problems, Manchin said: “It starts at the top. That means the White House.”
Reid can look at the Democratic Caucus and feel confident that he still exerts overwhelming influence on his colleagues. In interviews with more than two dozen Senate Democrats, a strong majority said either they back Reid or refused to even consider the possibility that Democrats would lose their majority, despite the serious prospect of Republicans winning the six seats needed to return to power for the first time since 2006.
“I reject the premise of the question,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-M0.). “I think Republicans have overplayed their hand on Obamacare; I think they have overplayed their hand rooting against the economy. I think voters see through that.”
“We’re not going to lose the majority, that’s all I have to say,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Not everyone appears comfortable discussing Reid’s future as leader.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who Reid helped elect in 2012, said she and the majority leader have a good relationship, but she changed the topic when asked about Reid’s future in the event of a Democratic debacle.
“One of the things that happens here is people quit legislating because they’re so busy talking about politics. I’m still legislating,” Heitkamp insisted.
Reid, who served as minority leader from 2005 to 2007 and has been majority leader since, has said his goal isn’t to surpass the late-Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana, who ran the Senate for a record-breaking 16 years from 1961 to 1977.
But he could potentially break Mansfield’s streak if he survives reelection in 2016 and continues to maintain support down the line. Still, a number of Hill Democrats are convinced that Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), another longtime party leader, will depart office with Barack Obama at the end of the president’s second term in January 2017, although no one will say so openly.
In a brief interview on Wednesday, Reid said he has yet to ask for commitments from his colleagues to stay on as leader. But asked about his fundraising drive to help Democrats retain the majority, Reid said: “I’ve done a number of events this week, dealing with the DSCC; I made calls over there; I continue to do everything I can.”
So far, Reid has headlined 19 DSCC fundraisers this cycle. This includes 11 events in Washington, three in Los Angeles, two in New York and one each in Chicago, Orlando and San Francisco, according to his office. The events have helped Reid pull in $1.8 million for the committee, separate from an additional $380,000 Reid has donated through his campaign account.
Democrats seem to notice.
“I support Harry Reid for anything,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who won Reid’s backing for a tough primary challenge this year. “He’s my leader.”
Sen. Mark Udall said “of course” he would support Reid if he wins his close reelection fight in Colorado this fall.
“Look, he gets a lot of criticism — some of it is legitimate, he would be the first to tell you,” Udall said. “He has 99 egos and 50 states he’s got to deal with, and I think Sen. Reid deserves a tip of the hat for being willing to take on that responsibility.”