Democrats this week lost the first big campaign skirmish of 2016.
They head into next year’s Congress with an embattled Senate leader who faced strong public criticism from colleagues.
Republicans are thrilled that the Senate face of the Democratic Party in the Senate remains Harry Reid, the Nevada senator whom they berated throughout the campaign season. Reid quelled a mild uprising among Senate Democrats this week. He survived and remains regarded as a skillfull legislative tactician. But he starts 2015 perceived as the weakest Senate leader in years.
“What the heck was Reid doing running for re-election?” asked Burdett Loomis, a congressional expert and professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “The bottom just dropped out of his Senate majority, and he and his caucus are profoundly unpopular.”
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Democrats control 55 seats in the current Senate. Next year they'll control 45 or 46. Still to be determined is a Louisiana Senate seat. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is the underdog in the December runoff.
Democrats now are looking to 2016, where they see a big chance to win back the Senate.
Of the 34 seats at stake, Democrats now must defend 10, and many of the Republican-held seats are in Democratic-leaning states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
The party is eager to establish a message and strategy that identifies it as unceasingly sensitive to middle class concerns. Trouble is, that might mean joining like-minded Republicans, particularly on spending and trade issues, an alliance that would hardly help make the Democratic brand distinctive.
The drive for 2016 self-preservation has already begun. The day before Senate Democrats voted to retain Reid as their leader, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri met with Reid for about 45 minutes and told him she wouldn’t support him as leader. She called the conversation awkward, adding, “I came out of his office in some ways sad, but in some ways feeling better that he really heard what I had to say.”
McCaskill then had lunch with her Missouri colleague, Sen. Roy Blunt, who serves on the Republican leadership team as the vice chair of the GOP conference.
The next day, she was one of at least six Democrats saying they would not vote to re-elect Reid as leader. Senate Democrats met for nearly four hours in what was called a lively session. “Everyone stood and gave their opinions, and there were some wildly different opinions about what should happen,” McCaskill said.
Blunt, who had nothing to do with McCaskill’s decision on Reid, was pleased at the uproar. “Apparently neither of us believe that Harry Reid has been doing a good job,” he said.
Once again, Republicans were using Reid as their villain.
“Republicans will want to pick off a few people, and it will be easier,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group.
Democratic critics see Reid as too often mired in procedural wrangling with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and failing to see the bigger political picture.
Democrats were defending 21 seats this year, including seven in “red” states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012. Votes on the Keystone XL pipeline or simply moving bipartisan legislation would have helped them in those states.
Reid often had the Senate debating measures aimed at wooing targeted constituencies, such as single women or lower-income workers, or taking partisan votes on matters like presidential nominations. That left Senate Democrats with highly partisan voting records, records Republicans used against them.
The Senate’s votes “took away a lot of their ability to distance themselves from the president,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan research group.
This strategy was not all Reid’s doing. A lot of campaigning senators didn’t want tougher votes. And throughout the year, Democrats appreciated how Reid stood up to McConnell, who employed his own highly partisan tactics to block Democratic initiatives.
Polls showed that voter disdain for President Obama, not Reid, often led them away from Democrats. But in the cloistered world of the Capitol, Reid got much of the blame.
“I was very upfront. I thought we needed change,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Reid does still have a few advantages. No one emerged as a serious challenger to his leadership. Senators still appreciate his mastery of procedure. He is probably Democrats’ best warrior against the wily McConnell. And he did vow changes.
Reid this week vowed “a different approach” and created new leadership positions for Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. They'll work to “create an atmosphere where the middle class feels that we’re fighting for them,” Reid said.
Whether Reid is an effective leader in this drive for change is another question. At one point this week, he was asked if he should have managed the Senate differently. He immediately started talking about process, about 73 times in the last two years where he wanted to vote on amendments on a wide range of topics. “The minority refused to let us have a vote,” he said, accurately.
If Democrats are to get some momentum for the next election, though, the talk has to be more about the middle class and less about the Senate’s inner workings.
“In the end,” said Loomis, “is Reid, the old dog, capable of learning at least a few new tricks? He’d better.”