Harry Reid’s decision to retire from Congress turned attention immediately to his replacements, not least because he himself promptly tried to influence his successors both as senator and as Democratic floor leader.
Reid has often intervened in Senate races, and it has not always won him friends.
In 2006, he helped muscle Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett out of a U.S. Senate race in Ohio. Hackett had just made an unusually strong showing as a Democrat in a normally Republican U.S. House district.
Reid was trying to clear the way for Democrat Sherrod Brown, who had decided not to run, then changed his mind after Hackett got into the race.
Reid’s move, which was supported by New York Sen. Charles Schumer (Reid’s choice now to replace him as Democratic leader), angered veterans and liberals.
“Alienating Hackett is not just a bad idea for the party, but it also sends a chill through the rest of the 56 or so veterans that we’ve worked to run for Congress,” Band of Brothers (a group that encourages Democratic veterans to run for office) executive director Mike Lyon told the New York Times. “Now is a time for Democrats to be courting, not blocking, veterans who want to run.”
Columnist Ken Bode wrote, “What they [Reid, Schumer, and company] owed Hackett in return for his courage and his service was, at least, their neutrality. They owed it to him to keep their grubby hands off and let him run a fair race.”
Hackett withdrew from the race.
Last month, when U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced her retirement, Reid quickly endorsed U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen for the seat, though two prominent black leaders – Rep. Donna Edwards and former NAACP chief Ben Jealous – were likely candidates and the Democratic bloc in the Senate has fewer black and Latino members than the Republicans.
That prompted major Democratic money man Steve Phillips to say, “For Harry Reid to come out and endorse Van Hollen is insulting, period. But to do it on the anniversary of the Selma 50th anniversary – to make an endorsement that would make the Senate less diverse – is outrageous and insulting.”
It didn’t help that Reid’s opposite number in the House, Nancy Pelosi, was asking Van Hollen to stay in the House.
Last week on the same day he announced his retirement, Reid also anointed former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto as his successor. He said in a radio interview, “Whoever runs against Catherine, I think will be a loser. … I hope she decides to run. If she does, I’m going to help her.”
Why he didn’t let her seek the job on her own is anyone’s guess. His support puts her in a terribly awkward position. She has been accused of seeking her abortive 2008 indictment of former Republican lieutenant governor Brian Krolicki as a way of preventing him from running against Reid (a charge Reid flatly denied). Now Reid’s endorsement of her will enable her Republican critics to more easily accuse her of a quid pro quo.
Even if it didn’t, it now puts Cortez Masto in the position of running as “Harry Reid’s candidate” instead of running as her own person. While his endorsement may well help her in the primary election, that imprimatur is not necessarily a benefit when the general election comes. Remember the grief the Democrats gave to John McCain (who had once been every Democrat’s favorite Republican and who Reid tried to lure into switching parties) by portraying him as another George W. Bush.
As for Reid’s effort to enforce Schumer on the party as Democratic leader, it is already drawing criticism from party activists who want a leader who better understands that a Senate leader must also be a national party leader.
The Democrats have a long history of choosing leaders who lack the media skills and deftness in policy debates outside D.C. that Republicans have.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.