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Republicans Point To Reid As A Symbol Of What's Wrong In D.C.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., faces reporters at the Capitol after bipartisan Senate opposition blocked swift confirmation for President Barack Obama's choice to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights division on March 5.
J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., faces reporters at the Capitol after bipartisan Senate opposition blocked swift confirmation for President Barack Obama's choice to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights division on March 5.

Conservatives can't stand Harry Reid.

The Senate majority leader is under steady attack from Republicans for calling the Koch brothers, billionaire funders of conservative causes, "un-American." His Senate colleagues across the aisle criticize his stewardship in unusually sharp terms.

Recognizing a rich vein, New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie took on the Nevada Democrat on Thursday during his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

"Harry Reid should get back to work and stop picking on great Americans," Christie said.

Reid's habit of attacking political opponents in highly charged and personal ways has all kinds of Republican pundits and politicians slamming him, accusing the veteran senator of "McCarthyism" and calling him "detestable" or even "the worst living human being on the planet."

It's gotten to the point where getting rid of Reid and taking the Senate agenda out of his control is emerging as a talking point for GOP candidates this year.

"He's certainly a symbol of most of what's wrong with Washington these days," says David Ray, communications director for Republican Rep. Tom Cotton's Arkansas Senate campaign. "We're not going to have a conservative majority as long as Harry Reid is running things."

There's just one problem: It's not clear that enough voters have even heard of Reid to make him into a useful target for Republicans nationwide.

"I don't think that Harry Reid is a particularly scary character to ordinary folks," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. "About half the population probably knows who he is."

No Politics Is Local

It's become common in recent election cycles for one party to vilify and lambaste the leaders of the other, to say that a vote for Candidate X is a vote for Newt Gingrich or Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

It's a sign both of how polarized the country is and how nationalized House and Senate races have become.

"You can make the case that the Tip O'Neill trope 'all politics is local' has changed," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a website run by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "If it was ever true, it's less true now than it was."

Republicans believe they have an especially ripe target in Reid. A Gallup poll last fall showed that Reid's job approval rating stood at 33, compared to 53 percent who disapproved — the worst showing among current congressional leaders (although not by much).

Reid was called out by Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, in his CPAC address Thursday.

"Can you believe this guy?" McConnell said. "Reid has spent two weeks calling people whose lives have been upended by Obamacare liars."

Liars And Losers

McConnell was referring to Reid's recent assertion that the claims from people in ads funded by Americans for Prosperity — a Koch-backed organization — were false. Those individuals, including a Michigan woman with leukemia, had said they were personally harmed by the Affordable Care Act.

Reid's decision to criticize a cancer patient by name on the Senate floor — with cause, by some accounts — was denounced by numerous Republicans. His more recent charges against the Koch brothers have turned up the noise.

"If Harry Reid were a 'real man' he'd zip his lips disparaging Americans from the Senate floor," Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, tweeted Wednesday.

Reid's latest volleys follow a long list of provocative statements, including his claim during the 2012 campaign that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney hadn't paid his taxes for 10 years, or the time in 2005 he called President George W. Bush a "loser."

Getting Rid Of Harry

That scorched-earth approach led Fox host Greta Van Susteren to suggest that Reid should step down from his leadership post because he is a "bully."

Republicans would just as soon force him out by taking control of the Senate this fall. "Folks understand that a vote for Mary Landrieu, Mark Udall, Kay Hagan or Mark Begich is a vote for more of the same broken promises, failed policies and Washington dysfunction," says Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Indeed, many of the Republicans running against those incumbent Democratic senators have complained not only about them, but also about Reid himself.

In a recent telephone town hall, Rep. Bill Cassidy, Landrieu's main opponent in Louisiana, didn't mention her and instead focused on Reid. Thom Tillis, who is running against Hagan in North Carolina, accused her of pushing Reid's policies when he officially filed as a Senate candidate last week.

Enough Of A Target?

Republicans have been trying to make Reid into a bogeyman for a long time. Yet no matter what complaints they lodge against him, he has kept his grip on power.

Reid appears totally unfazed by the idea that Republicans are once again targeting him.

"Most people don't know who I am," he told Politico in an interview published Thursday.

Most people who have hostile views of him are probably Republicans anyway, says Jacobson, the UCSD political scientist. Attacking Reid isn't going to change many minds.

But it can be a useful tactic nonetheless.

"You can think of it as motivating turnout," Jacobson says. "In red states where you have a Democratic senator who is working with Harry Reid, it's a way of reminding people that their senators are Democrats."

And, if Reid doesn't help turn out the vote, Republicans are counting on another, better-known villain — the president.

"Harry Reid and Senate Democrats are a tool or a proxy for President Obama," says Hougesen, the NRSC press secretary.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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