Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race MORE (D-Nev.) has minimized a politically damaging racial controversy through quick action, Democrats and strategists say.
Reid quickly apologized to President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda The root of Joe Biden's troubles MORE, as well as nearly a dozen black lawmakers and community leaders, after learning his race-related comments about Obama’s chances of becoming the first black president were to be made public in a new book.
“He’s done everything he could do to get the black leadership in Nevada to rally around him,” said Jon Ralston, a political expert based in Reid’s home state.
“Tactically, both Sen. Reid and the White House responded quickly to put this issue to rest,” said Todd Webster, a strategist who once handled communications for then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
Reid knew late Friday he was about to be in serious political trouble when staff informed him that the remarks, which he thought were private, would be in the new book Game Change.
He told staff to brace for a tough weekend and instructed them to go into damage-control mode. He then hunkered down at his home in Searchlight, Nev., and began working the telephone, apologizing for saying Obama had a good chance to be the first black president because he was “light-skinned” and spoke with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Among those he called were: House Democratic Whip James Clyburn (S.C.); Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus; and the outspoken civil rights leader Al Sharpton.
Reid also contacted African-American leaders in Nevada, gaining statements of support from Steven Horsford, the majority leader of the Nevada Senate, and the leaders of the Reno and Las Vegas branches of the NAACP.
“It all began with Sen. Reid quickly acknowledging the need to express regret and apologize,” said spokesman Jim Manley. “He immediately expressed the need to move quickly.”
Obama was among the first to support Reid.
During an interview on “Washington Watch with Roland Martin” that will air later this month, Obama said, “[Reid] is a good man who’s always been on the right side of history. For him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense.”
Democrats contrasted Reid’s decisive response to the hesitant way former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) reacted when he found himself at the center of a controversy over race-related comments in 2002.
Webster said the substance of Reid’s comments was very different from what Lott said in 2002 but that the situation nevertheless could have spun out of control.
“Sen. Reid and his team understood the importance of the optics of this,” he said. “Even if the substance wasn’t the same as Lott, it still could present a problem.”
On Monday, Reid did his best to move past the controversy at his first public appearance since the comments surfaced.
“I’ve apologized to the president and I’ve apologized to everyone [within] the sound of my voice that I could have used a better choice of words and I will continue to do my work for the African-American community,” Reid said at a news conference in Apex, Nev.
To be sure, Reid may still have some work to do. Republicans are raising the issue and demanding he step down, and he’s facing the most difficult reelection campaign of his political career.
Reid is scheduled Thursday to appear at an African-Americans for Harry Reid lunch in Las Vegas with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. The event was scheduled weeks ago and will go off as planned, sources said.
A Democratic aide not affiliated with Reid’s office said Reid had saved himself by mobilizing support quickly.
“I think he has handled it as well as he could have by quickly apologizing and doing significant outreach in the hours after this happened,” the aide said.
“He has a lot of loyalty within the Senate Democratic caucus and among African-American leaders to fall back on.”
An aide to a senior Democratic senator said: “The key was the rally around Reid. The Republicans, by contrast, hung Lott out to dry. They turned their backs.”
Lott stumbled into trouble seven years ago when he declared at a tribute for former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) that the nation would have been better off if Thurmond won the presidency as a segregationist candidate in 1948.
Lott’s comments were little noticed at first but soon began to snowball into major scandal after civil rights leaders condemned the Republican leader. Wade Henderson, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Lott “betrayed his role as the majority leader.”
Lott also failed to secure the support of former President George W. Bush, who hammered Lott publicly by declaring: “Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. He has apologized, and rightly so.”
Republican colleagues, such as former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenators ask Biden administration to fund program that helps people pay heating bills McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Republicans are today's Dixiecrats MORE (R-Maine), were also slow to rally behind Lott. They blocked an effort by Lott’s supporters to hold a vote expressing support for the leader.
Senate Democrats have already begun to close ranks around their leader.
Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, has offered to circulate a letter of support for Reid among Democratic colleagues, according to a Democratic aide. Reid has told Schumer that he does not think such a step will be necessary, the aide added.
In the House, Lee and Clyburn also made statements of support, as did the Rev. Sharpton, a leader known for his willingness to deliver outspoken criticism.
Sharpton said, “I look forward to continue to work with Sen. Reid wherever possible to improve the lives of Americans everywhere.”
Dan Hart, a Democratic political strategist in Nevada, said Reid and his team “marshaled the support of African-American leaders” and “handled this as well as they could.”
Hart said he doubted the comments would inflict much damage on Reid’s bid for reelection in November, though he acknowledged the impact “remains to be seen.”
Hart and other Nevada political experts have dismissed the possibility that Reid, who is struggling with low poll numbers, would step aside like Sen. Chris Dodd (D) did in Connecticut.
“The Democratic Party in Nevada is Harry Reid,” said Hart. “Should he step aside, there is not [an] obvious potential successor.”
This article was first published at 4:07 p.m.