Reid, Back to Work, Puts Fracas Behind Him

Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:41pm

While the full ramifications of his use of racially insensitive language won’t be known until Election Day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) life in Washington, D.C., began returning to normal Wednesday, as he was able to focus on legislation instead of damage control for the first time in days.

Reid was back in town Wednesday for a meeting on health care reform and the economy at the White House and was scheduled to travel today to New York City to give a speech on energy issues. While Reid’s office declined to comment for this story, Democrats and Republicans said privately it appears Reid has turned the corner on the incident.

A newly released book on the 2008 presidential campaign, “Game Change,— says Reid called President Barack Obama “light skinned— and without a “Negro dialect.— When Reid’s comments surfaced in “Game Change,— a new book written by Halperin and John Heilemann, the Majority Leader came under withering criticism. But in the days since, GOP attacks have tapered off and Reid now seems poised to move on — a remarkable turnaround given the toxicity of racially based scandals in the past.

Operatives in both parties chalked up Reid’s success in managing the potentially career-ending incident on several key factors: Reid’s quick reaction, the unanimous support of his conference and his ability to find support in the civil rights community based on a history of strong relations.

“There’s no longer an outstanding question of whether he’ll keep his leadership position. That much is behind him,— a GOP operative said, adding that Reid’s team “handled it the right way. They got out early and did a bunch of things— to limit the fallout, including issuing a public apology before news of his comments had even been reported in most news outlets. “The first wave of stories were almost [all] about the apology,— the Republican added.

Steve Elmendorf, a veteran Democratic operative, said Reid’s initial handling of the debacle was the key to his success. “I think he’s handled it picture perfect. You have to acknowledge your mistake … the main thing is to immediately deal with it,— Elmendorf said.

A Senate Democratic aide agreed that the “Reid camp understood early on there was a problem, they acted quickly and did everything they needed to do in the first news cycle.—

Elmendorf also noted that the second key to Reid’s success in moving past the controversy stems from the unanimous backing by Obama, Democrats and civil rights leaders. Although a number of Republicans — including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) — demanded he resign as leader, Reid’s concern never was GOP attacks but dissension from within his own party, Elmendorf argued.

“Republicans weren’t the problem. The problem he could have had is if a bunch of Senators or [Congressional Black Caucus] Members on the Democratic side [were] condemning him. And no one did,— he said.

The GOP operative agreed, saying Democrats demonstrated a remarkable sense of loyalty to Reid. “It’s the blind loyalty really. You’d expect that most Members would have taken a sincere look at the comments … but there appears to be no contemplation at all. They just all rushed out [and] defended him.—

The lack of dissension may also be sheer dumb luck. Although having the situation erupt during a Congressional recess initially made it front-page news, the recess reduced the chances that a member of the Democratic Conference would criticize Reid because Senators were not walking the halls of the Capitol being bombarded by questions about his behavior.

“If he had all 60 members in D.C., the chances of having one of them saying something impolitic are probably a lot higher,— the GOP aide said.

Reid’s ability to quickly draw on support from civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton also aided in tamping down the spread of the controversy. Reid had a “reservoir of goodwill in the African American community, and had a strong record to stand on,— all of which made it possible for Sharpton and others to quickly back him, the Democratic aide argued.

The GOP operative agreed, arguing that black community “spokesmen were all pretty aligned with Reid.—

While Reid’s team may be able to take some pride in their ability to right his ship within days, they are also to some degree benefiting from his reputation for saying outrageous things, which may have lessened the incident’s longevity. “He has a rich history of bone-headed gaffes, so the prospect of him saying something completely outrageous is not as far-fetched as for some people … that does help him,— one Republican argued.

Even if Reid is starting to put the actual gaffe behind him, the aftershocks may linger, darkening an already grim electoral landscape for the Senate’s top Democrat.

Data from two independent polls released Wednesday shows that the controversy over his comments are a cause for concern in his camp, but hardly the only reason Reid is hurting politically.

In a survey conducted Jan. 11, Rasmussen Reports found that more than half — 55 percent — of voters said they have closely followed the controversy over the racial comments Reid made about Obama. Another 24 percent said they followed the story somewhat closely.

Public Policy Polling also released some preliminary results from a Nevada poll coming out today. The firm found that by a 48 percent to 39 percent margin, Reid’s black constituents don’t think he should step down from his leadership position.

However, PPP noted that the Majority Leader receives just 52 percent of the black vote against prospective Republican challengers Sue Lowden, a former state Republican party chairwoman, and Las Vegas real estate developer Danny Tarkanian — a poor result among a traditionally Democratic constituency.

According to Census data from 2008, African-Americans make up roughly 8 percent of Nevada’s population, lower than the 13 percent they make up of the national population. Hispanics are a much stronger political force in Nevada, making up nearly 26 percent of the population.

Reid, however, cannot afford to lose any support among his Democratic base, which he needs to turn out in force in November.

The Rasmussen poll found that Reid’s vote share has dropped to 36 percent against Lowden and Tarkanian, from 43 percent in December. And his favorable rating remains upside down — 55 percent view him unfavorably and 47 percent very unfavorably, while 41 percent view him favorably and 23 percent very favorably.

Ultimately, the health care debate is more likely than the racial gaffe to create ongoing headaches for Reid.

The Democratic-backed legislation is unpopular among a majority of Nevada voters. Just 39 percent of likely voters favor the Democrats’ health care plan, championed by Reid in the Senate, while 54 percent oppose it, Rasmussen found. The margin of error was 4.5 points.