Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has become a major focus of the 2014 campaign, with many of his embattled fellow Democrats declining to say whether they’d back him for their party caucus leader.
While President Obama may have poisoned the political environment for those Democrats, it is Mr. Reid who shaped the records they are defending — keeping them from having to take tough votes, but at the same time ensuring they didn’t have a chance to show much independence from the national party.
That’s left both incumbents and potential newcomers striving to distance themselves from the Nevada Democrat, who has run his party caucus for 10 years and has been majority leader for eight.
“I know how to say ‘No’ to Senator Reid,” Michelle Nunn said earlier this week at a debate in Georgia, where she is the Democrats’ nominee in a race for an open Senate seat.
Incumbent Democratic Sens. Mary L. Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark R. Warner in Virginia, Mark Begich in Alaska, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Pryor in Arkansas have also seemed to distance themselves from Mr. Reid, as has Allison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee in Kentucky.
Several have refused to say whether they would support Mr. Reid as their leader in the new Congress that begins next year, seeming to suggest that they were getting fed up with the stifling hold Mr. Reid has kept on the chamber.
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“I think it’s important for us to have a contest in these positions, because we need to think about how we’re doing business in the Senate,” Ms. Shaheen said in a debate earlier this month.
Ms. Landrieu, in a debate in New Orleans Monday night, tepidly defended her party’s caucus leader, saying Mr. Reid “gets beat up more than he deserves,” but added, “I am going to wait to see what the leadership looks like. I’m not saying yes. I’m not saying no” to supporting Mr. Reid as leader.
Jim Manley, senior director at Quinn Gillespie & Associates and a former top staffer for Mr. Reid, said all congressional leaders face this sort of scrutiny at election time, though there may be a few more senators than in the past who are trying to put distance between Mr. Reid and themselves.
“All of these guys have to do what they have to do,” Mr. Manley said. “Senator Reid understands that.”
Indeed, Ms. Nunn’s GOP opponent in Georgia, David Perdue, earlier this year refused to back Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader, en route to victory in a heated party primary.
Few chances to dissent
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But the slew of candidates feeling pressure to distance themselves from Mr. Reid, including many who currently serve with him, suggests growing discomfort with how he’s run the chamber.
Mr. Reid regularly uses his powers to control which amendments get offered on the floor, blocking out GOP proposals that would force tough votes that could embarrass Mr. Obama. But that also means vulnerable Democrats get few chances to break with the president, which is not playing well back home.
Roll Call, a paper that covers Capitol Hill, reported this week that “all of the most vulnerable Democrats voted with President Obama at least 96 percent of the time on the 120 votes on which Obama has urged a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote.”
Ms. Shaheen voted Mr. Obama’s way 98 percent of the time, as did Mr. Begich. Mr. Pryor scored 97 percent support, and Ms. Landrieu dissented the most, still notching a 96 percent support rate, according to Roll Call.
GOP strategist Michael McKenna said that, given those scores, it’s no surprise some of those senators are reluctant to embrace Mr. Reid to lead them next year.
“Senator Reid has been treating them as props in his own personal political Kabuki, and over time people are going to resent that — especially accomplished people who are really smart and know what’s going on,” Mr. McKenna said.
Mr. Reid took pains to avoid holding a vote this year on an amendment from Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, that would have required members of Congress and their employees to forgo their taxpayer-funded subsidy to buy health insurance. Mr. Vitter argues it would put them on even footing with those who are buying Obamacare plans on the exchanges.
Other amendments on boosting energy production or rolling back Obama administration environmental rules also never got votes in the Senate, despite pressure from some Democrats who had hoped they would offer a chance to show independence and cast votes for regional priorities.
“If you’re Mary Landrieu, if you’re Mark Warner, if you’re Mark Pryor, if you’re any of these guys, you really, really wanted to have an opportunity to get on the record opposing certain things and favoring other things,” Mr. McKenna said. “And Harry Reid, the way he’s run the shop, has prevented you from having a chance to do that. You are stuck with whatever votes [you] had coming in, and you never had a chance to get healthy.”
Mr. Manley, though, said Democrats agreed together that it was better to avoid GOP-led show votes, even if it meant fewer chances to offer their own proposals or to vote on other legislation.
“This is a strategy worked out with the caucus designed to do whatever [Mr. Reid] can to protect them, especially those up for election,” Mr. Manley said. “The fact of the matter is many of these amendments Republicans wanted to offer were simply designed to score political points.”
Mr. Manley said he has no doubt Mr. Reid will be re-elected as the Democrats’ leader for the next Congress.
The attention may be hurting Mr. Reid. The latest Gallup polling earlier this month found him with a 21 percent favorability rating, down 6 percentage points from earlier this year.
With his popularity dropping, Republicans have made Mr. Reid an issue in many of the Senate races, arguing he is the main obstacle to bipartisan cooperation.
“Harry Reid has been obstructing the Senate for years, and each of these Democrats has helped him do it, voting with Harry Reid and Barack Obama every step of the way,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. “There are piles of bills waiting for attention in Reid’s obstructionist Senate that could help Americans with jobs and help move our economy and health care system forward.”