WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has twice won elections he was supposed to lose. If Democrats maintain control of the Senate in November, much of the credit will go to the wily Nevada Democrat.
Reid is not on the ballot this year, but his position as majority leader depends on Democrats denying Republicans the net six seats they need to retake the Senate. By all accounts he is working as single-mindedly toward that goal as any of his endangered incumbents.
With his stooped shoulders, monotone delivery and occasionally impolitic remarks, Reid, 74, does not shine on the campaign trail. He appears at virtually no public events. Instead his maneuvering takes place behind the scenes and on the Senate floor, where he’s gone to extraordinary lengths this year to protect his Democrats from taking tough votes and deny legislative victories to Republicans.
At the same time Reid has immersed himself in work on behalf of the Senate Majority PAC, a fundraising committee led by longtime confidants that has become the most formidable of the so-called super PACs that are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Thanks to huge donations from labor unions and wealthy liberals, it has spent more than $30 million and is credited with keeping Democrats competitive in states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina where they were forecast to trail. A second committee run by a Reid ally, Patriot Majority USA, has spent more than $7 million independently against Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Reid is legally barred from directly raising money for Senate Majority PAC, but he meets privately with donors to discuss matters short of a direct request for funds. Aides said Reid has attended 116 meetings and fundraisers in 14 cities this election cycle for the Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other groups. Aside from its chairman, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Reid is the top Senate fundraiser for the DSCC.
Even as he has helped Democrats narrow a money gap with Republicans, Reid has relentlessly attacked the high-spending conservative activist Koch brothers, accusing them of trying to buy the elections. The attacks have sparked accusations of hypocrisy from Republicans but also have forced them to spend money in response. Reid declined an interview but officials with the Senate Majority PAC dismissed any suggestions of a contradiction.
“We have to play by the rules as they stand, not the rules that we want,” said Ty Matsdorf, director of campaigns at the political action committee.
With President Barack Obama in office another two years and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi already in the minority, the GOP has made “Fire Reid” its slogan for motivating voters to elect enough Republicans to replace him as the Senate’s majority leader.
“Harry Reid and Barack Obama — those are the battle cries,” Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said.
Reid and his allies dismiss those efforts as a waste of time since polls show many voters still don’t know who he is. “In a sense it helps the candidates that those people are firing at Reid,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “He lives and breathes keeping us in the majority.”
Only a politician as skilled as Reid could have won re-election in 2010, a bad year for Democrats, despite abysmal approval ratings in Nevada. But Reid had survived an earlier close call, winning re-election in 1998 by a mere 428 votes. He also had taken a lesson from the loss of former Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who was upset in South Dakota after alienating home-state voters by pressing his party’s national agenda. Reid worked methodically to avoid such an outcome.
He helped make Nevada an early nominating state in the 2008 presidential election, ensuring a boom in Democratic voter registration. Then he and his team meddled in the Republican primary, elbowing out the mainstream candidate in favor of a hard-right conservative. Reid ended up winning handily.
A chief architect of that victory was Rebecca Lambe, Reid’s top operative in Nevada. Lambe and Susan McCue, Reid’s former chief of staff, are now running the Senate Majority PAC. They and other Democratic operatives associated with Reid, including leaders of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, are applying some of the same techniques they used on Reid’s behalf four years ago to help Democratic candidates this year.
“In 2010 they had to re-elect a guy who should have been dead,” said Jon Ralston, a longtime political pundit in Nevada. “I don’t think you can underestimate them.”
Reid, who once complained that tourists to the Capitol smell in the summer heat, is happiest away from the spotlight, finessing deals and parliamentary tricks. He all but shut down the amendment process in the Senate this year to avoid votes on politically tricky issues like the president’s health care law and regulations discouraging coal-burning power plants.
“Harry Reid’s the No. 1 obstructionist,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., groused.
Democrats see it differently.
“He’s done what he had to do to protect his vulnerable members,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic consultant and former Reid aide.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.