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December 20, 2014

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Politics:

Reid’s time as majority leader hinges on 2014 election

When Sen. Harry Reid ran for re-election in 2010, many Nevada Republicans banded around him with a simple rationale: Don’t kill the clout that comes with a majority leader who calls Nevada home.

While Reid is now safe in his seat until 2016, there’s a real chance that in just over a year, he could lose a large chunk of the power Nevada voters have so prized — and there may be little that any Nevadan can do about it.

Political watchers believe the likelihood is growing that the Senate could change hands in the 2014 election, relegating Reid to the minority. They blame a combination of strategically inconvenient retirements, vulnerable incumbents up for re-election in states unfriendly to Democrats, and one abiding truth about mid-term elections during a president’s second term.

“The party in power generally loses seats,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “There have been six of these elections since 1968, and only one of them has been a wash.”

Reid became majority leader thanks to just such an election cycle. In 2006, during the latter years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Democrats took the Senate that year by picking up six seats — exactly the number of seats Republicans would have to nab in 2014 to perform the same feat in reverse.

The map is sympathetic to the Republican cause.

“Look at the vulnerable races,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “They’re in conservative states like West Virginia, South Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska. These are red states. That’s really where the Democrats are vulnerable. And where are the Democrats on the offensive? Nowhere.”

Democrats have struggled to field candidates in the conservative states where they are attempting to maintain their grasp on seats held by outgoing Senate lifers, such as Montana’s Max Baucus, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller or South Dakota’s Tim Johnson.

A week ago, the Democrats’ top pick in Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, announced he would pass on a race in 2014, despite having built up national recognition as a chief surrogate for President Barack Obama in 2012.

“In West Virginia, they just completely struck out,” with no prospects on the horizon, Sabato said.

Democrats have a candidate in South Dakota: Rick Weiland. But he had a rocky start, after Reid told Politico this spring that Weiland is “not my choice.” Reid had failed in an effort to recruit former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for the race.

Then there’s the red states where Reid and his Democrats will be trying to defend vulnerable incumbents, such as Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’s Mark Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, who is being challenged by Rep. Bill Cassidy.

“Landrieu’s always been vulnerable, and she’s beaten the odds every time,” Duffy said. “But this is the best candidate she’s ever faced.”

Republicans can make or break their golden chance at a majority by how well they meet the same challenge as Democrats: coming up with good candidates. But in many places, they just haven’t found them yet.

Republican candidates, however, still start off at a competitive advantage.

“The midterm starts as a referendum on the president and the job that he’s doing,” said Nathan Gonzales, senior editor with the Rothenberg Political Report. “The overarching theme is either the Democrat incumbents or the nominees are going to be looking for ways to declare their independence from the president and the national party.”

That puts Reid in the familiar spot of working from behind the scenes, but with the responsibility of not complicating things from the spotlight.

“Leader Reid’s role will be behind the scenes, helping to raise money,” Gonzales said. “But he has to consider the interest of those Democrats representing conservative, red territory in the votes he brings up on the Senate floor.”

Fundraising isn’t a new phenomenon for Reid, who always manages to rustle up millions upon millions for his Democratic re-election campaigns. But since his re-election, Reid has appointed himself the Democrats’ chief hatchet man to the Republican brand, deriding everyone from Mitt Romney to the Tea Party in seething tones.

Now, he may have to ratchet that back a bit, in style and in substance.

“He may want to avoid certain hot-button topics that don’t help them. … Guns, and any social issue, probably would fall into that category,” Sabato said. “Truthfully, he’s got a great excuse: The House of Representatives isn’t going to pass any of that stuff, so what’s the point, really?”

Republicans will be working overtime to tie any Democrat that emerges as a stooge of the establishment, complicit in policies such as Obamacare and the president’s current troubles with the Internal Revenue Service and National Security Agency — though they are pulling some punches.

“Remember when all of the NSA stuff came out and people were talking about impeachment?” Duffy said, recalling when Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm election after promising to impeach President Bill Clinton. “A lot of smarter Republicans were saying ‘Shut up!’ — that would be why!”

Of course, the die isn’t exactly cast yet. An issue could come out of nowhere to sideline traditional prognostication measures.

“A scandal, or lack of it, and war and peace — god forbid if there’s another war,” Sabato said. “There’s all kinds of things that can come into it.”

But if these races are to hinge on any specific national issue, it will likely be the issues raised most often by the Republicans, such as health care and general economic confidence. Immigration will be part of the mix only if Congress is truly unable to resolve a compromise before the elections.

The irony for Republicans: Even though Obama’s approval ratings are down, Democrats still poll higher in national confidence ratings on the economy and health care. That poses a challenge for Republicans seeking to make their case.

“Don’t forget how narrow a Republican’s path is,” Duffy said. “Six seats is still a big number.”

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