Senate leaders followed similar paths

At the time, neither man had catapulted into leadership. Neither chaired a committee. Reid, who survived an attempt on his life as the Nevada gaming commissioner, was elected to the Senate in 1986 after serving two terms in the House.

McConnell had survived polio as a child to become a deputy assistant attorney general and county judge before his Senate election in 1984.

But as The Hill was making its mark over the last 15 years, Reid and McConnell were employing similar strategies to reach the top positions in the Senate.

McConnell hit the leadership ranks first, becoming Ethics Committee chairman in 1995, National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chairman in 1998, Rules Committee chairman in 1999 and majority whip in 2003. After the GOP lost control of Congress in 2006, McConnell became minority leader in 2007. Kentucky has sent him back to the Senate with 55.5 percent of the vote in 1996, 64.7 percent in 2002 and 52.9 percent in 2008.

McConnell told The Hill he came to Washington without an initial thirst for leadership.

“Like most members, I had some ambition when I got here, but in ’94 Sen. [Bob] Dole [R-Kan.] was in charge, so there wasn’t an immediate opportunity,” McConnell said. “I don’t know when I developed the goal. But I don’t think I can tell you that 15 years ago I had decided I wanted to be the Republican leader.”

“McConnell looks ahead,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), one of McConnell’s closest advisers. “He lives by the maxim that you can never start too early. He wrapped up that job of whip by starting ahead of everyone else, and he became leader the same way — whenever anyone wanted to challenge him, they found out he already had the votes lined up.”

Told of Bennett’s comments, McConnell responded by quoting former Kentucky Gov. Happy Chandler (D): “You can start too late, but you can never start too early.”

Reid earned the minority whip job in 1999, then became majority whip in 2001 and was elected minority leader by his colleagues in 2005. After Democrats grabbed control of the chamber in 2006, Reid was named majority leader.

He survived a close contest with then-Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.) to win reelection in 1998, but Nevadans gave him 61 percent of the vote in 2004. Republicans are targeting Reid in his reelection bid next year.

Friends and observers say Reid reached the top by being diligent — forging fruitful alliances, sensing opportunities and making careful choices.

Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime consultant and insider in Nevada politics who has known Reid for 25 years, has watched Reid’s rise from afar and said the majority leader never relied on any single tactic.

“He’s a consummate political jigsaw-puzzle guy — he’s always had an amazing capacity to see the pieces and know where they fit,” Vassiliadis said. “He builds relationships which may not make a ton of sense, but at some point they come together for his benefit. He’s always had a sense of what he needed to invest into those relationships, whether it was fundraising or political support. It obviously helped that he had a close relationship with Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy. And he was one of the first to put an arm around the shoulder of a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.”

McConnell used the same approach in GOP circles, said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who was chairman of the NRSC at the time of McConnell’s 1984 election.

“He had remarkable skills and a very soft manner, but he offered consistency and he developed people’s trust,” Lugar said. “He’s not a grandstander. He never wanted to upstage anyone in the process. Sometimes leaders are characterized by over-dramatic gestures, but McConnell has never needed to do that.”

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), another of McConnell’s closest GOP friends, remembers a “tenaciousness” in his rise in Republican ranks. But McConnell also demonstrated a willingness to take on unpopular but necessary fights, Gregg said, such as bucking fellow Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) on campaign finance reform.

“That was the one thing that got him the most notoriety,” Gregg said. “Whether you agreed with him or not, you certainly were respectful of what he was doing ...  There’s no question that was not a popular position to take, but it was the right position and it was very important.”

Like Bennett, Gregg said McConnell wiped out the field of competitors for leadership early, being “very focused” on where he wanted to go.

“What people don’t appreciate is what a strategic thinker he is,” Gregg said. “He sees the big picture before it occurs.”

Simultaneously, Reid has been making inroads among Democrats for the past decade and a half by following the same tenets: Listen more than you speak; see the big picture; and pay attention to details — and people.

“There’s nothing unusual here,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who survived calls for his ouster as a committee chairman. “It was hard work, reliability and trustworthiness.”

Many Democrats salute Reid’s boxing days, speculating that background helped their leader forge the identity he needed. Other senior Democrats, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, see a strategic purpose behind Reid’s rise.

“There’s two kinds of leaders: inside leaders and outside leaders. And Harry Reid is very much an inside leader,” Feinstein said. “This is a huge caucus, and there’s different sounds and different drummers and to get them to all harmonize together is difficult. And he’s as good as anyone I’ve seen in my time at doing that.”

Randi Thompson, a Nevada-based Republican political consultant, has known Reid since she first worked against him in a 1986 race. She said not even Republican President Ronald Reagan could successfully campaign against Reid in 1984, a result of the lawmaker’s few but vital charms.

“It’s not like he’s a sparkling personality. It’s not like he’s a handsome man. It’s not like he’s a great orator,” Thompson said. “It’s his behind-the-scenes political dealings. He’s able to raise money, spread it around, build support and build this political base. He’s come from behind several times. You just can’t underestimate him. On the East Coast he just looks so vulnerable. Out here we don’t know how we can beat him.”