By Alexander Bolton - 03/27/14 06:00 AM EDT
Sen. Harry Reid is facing what could be the biggest challenge of his political career: preserving the Democrats’ tenuous majority.
The Nevada Democrat has approached the tall task in the same way he has other major battles: by ignoring his critics, slugging away at his opponents and pushing a populist message.
Reid declared that ObamaCare has faded as an issue and called Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) a “joke” for repeatedly pushing fruitless efforts to repeal the law. Earlier in the day, Boehner suggested ObamaCare was the “joke.”
“We feel very comfortable where we are, despite the Koch brothers with their outrageous spending,” Reid said in reference to Charles and David Koch, libertarians who have already spent about $30 million against Democratic candidates this election cycle. “We’re doing fine. We have superb candidates all over the country.”
However, independent political handicappers, including the highly respected Nate Silver, say the odds are Democrats will lose control of the upper chamber. That would end Reid’s eight-year reign as majority leader, which ranks behind only former Sens. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Alben Barkley (D-Ky.) in longevity.
“For a guy who spent his years waging a good fight, sometimes physically and sometimes legislatively, this could be a real big test for him,” said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Reid.
Reid, who turns 75 in December, has repeatedly said he will run for reelection in 2016.
Pundits often talk about Reid’s amateur boxing career to explain his hard-knuckled political style.
In past election battles, he’s thrown a lot of haymakers. In the 2006 election cycle, he called then-President George W. Bush a “liar” and a “loser.” In 2008, he declared, “I can’t stand John McCain,” who at the time was the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. In 2012, he accused another GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, of not paying his taxes without offering proof.
In recent weeks, Reid has sought to demonize the Koch brothers while working vigorously behind the scenes to calm colleagues who are jittery over President Obama’s low approval rating.
Some on the left and on the right have questioned the Koch-focused game plan.
Brent Budowsky, a Democratic columnist for The Hill, wrote in his Thursday column that Democrats should “stop whining” about the Kochs, who he claims play “by the rules with tenacity, aggression and skill.”
Earlier this week, Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Hill, “I don’t understand their strategy.”
Reid this week organized a Democratic Caucus meeting to prepare the rollout of the populist economic agenda, which also includes legislation to make college more affordable, safeguard what Democrats call the “Medicare guarantee” and end tax incentives for companies that move facilities to other countries.
“One reason we had our caucus [Tuesday] was to talk about this agenda,” he said. “We had [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman] Michael Bennet [(Colo.)] there to talk to us about what’s happening with our races around the country and believe me, my senators walked out of there with smiles on their faces.”
Following a tough 2004 election for Democrats where John Kerry and Tom Daschle were defeated, Reid took over as the Senate’s top Democrat. For four straight elections, Senate Democrats have exceeded expectations.
Reid says he’s used to being underestimated by inside-the-Beltway pundits, who gave him little chance of becoming majority leader in 2007 or winning reelection in 2010.
“When I first became the leader, everyone made fun of the head of the DSCC and me for saying that we were going to hold our own. Well, we did. We took the majority,” he said.
The stunning Democratic takeover of the Senate that year even surprised Reid, who had earlier said such a scenario would take a “miracle.”
He noted in 2012 that pundits predicted, “We’re gone, we’re dead ducks.”
“We picked up two seats,” he added.
Manley, Reid’s former aide, said Reid has consistently held his course when faced with long odds, such as in 2010 when Democratic support began to erode from the healthcare reform effort.
Then White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel suggested pulling back, but Reid supported Obama’s decision to hit the gas.
At the Senate Democratic retreat at Nationals Park in early February, Reid tapped Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to craft an agenda for 2014 that would rev up the Democratic base and give vulnerable incumbents economic issues they could use as ammo in conservative-leaning states. The agenda now includes smaller bills with bipartisan support that can make it to the president’s desk and counter the House GOP’s criticism that the Democratic Senate has become a do-nothing chamber.
“We Democrats would prefer these items pass and become law,” Schumer said. “But if Republicans continue to oppose these issues that enjoy broad support across party lines and across the country, they’ll do so at their own political risk.
“We’re going on offense in the months ahead,” he added.
Reid has not been shy in taking on the White House this cycle, pressing the administration at the end of last year to coordinate more closely with Senate Democrats.
If Republicans fall short in November, Democrats will likely keep their majority until at least 2019 because the electoral map favors them in the 2016 presidential election cycle.
Those close to Reid expect to him to stay in the Senate.
“Sen. Reid loves the Senate. This is really a home that he is comfortable with. He has mastered the Senate rules and been an extraordinarily effective leader in keeping the Senate Democratic Caucus together, which is no easy task in these difficult times with the president’s popularity plummeting,” said former Sen. Richard Bryan (D), who represented Nevada.
Reid remains popular in his caucus, and colleagues would likely support him staying on as Democratic leader, even in the minority.
Schumer, who is widely expected to succeed Reid, dodged a question Wednesday about whether Reid would likely stay on as leader.
Asked about the ramifications if Democrats lose control of the Senate, Schumer scoffed before answering, “The Republicans are not going to take over the Senate, so we don’t have to answer that question.”
Manley said, “He is not going anywhere. I expect him to continue to be leader for years to come.”