Election's forgotten winner: Harry Reid

A gain in seats and a more liberal caucus strengthen Democrats' position for the epic battles ahead

By Thomas F. Schaller
November 9, 2012 12:34AM (UTC)
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(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In the immediate aftermath of any election, lists of winners and losers quickly proliferate. Putting aside the obvious choices — Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — the loser lists have included Karl Rove, anti-gay marriage advocates, older white men and Paul Ryan, while non-white millennials, reproductive rights, early voters and Nate Silver top many of the winners lists.

But there’s one often-overlooked name on the 2012 list of big winners: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In an election that reaffirmed status quo control of the presidency, Senate and House, Reid was arguably the biggest winner among the national leadership troika that includes him, Obama and Republican Speaker John Boehner.


A year ago, with Democrats defending 23 total seats from their huge 2006 freshmen Senate class to just 10 Republican-defended seats, Reid’s chamber majority was in serious jeopardy. But just like the Nevada Democrat’s own 2010 reversal of fortune — despite low approval numbers back home and a weak Democratic cycle nationally, Reid slipped the Republicans’ noose — the Democratic majority not only also cheated death but expanded his Senate control Tuesday night.

Technically, the Democrats netted just one seat on Tuesday, flipping Indiana and Massachusetts from red to blue, while losing back Nebraska to the Republicans. But a closer look shows deeper gains and a new, more liberal caucus for Reid to manage in the upcoming 113th Congress.

First, if one counts newly elected Independent Angus King of Maine as a caucusing Democrat, King’s replacement of retiring Republican moderate Olympia Snowe effectively gives Reid a two-seat caucus gain — or, perhaps more accurately, a net loss of two seats for Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And regardless of King’s partisan identity or Snowe’s Gang-of-14 centrism, the Maine seat shifted ideologically to the left.


Second, there is a demonstrable liberal shift to Reid’s caucus. Counting Independent Joe Lieberman’s vacated seat as part of the Democrats’ pre-election caucus total, in three of Reid’s successfully defended seats retiring centrists will be replaced by more progressive newcomers: true-Democrat Chris Murphy takes Lieberman’s Connecticut seat; Tim Kaine supplants Bubba-fied Jim Webb in Virginia; and liberal Tammy Baldwin replaces retiring businessman Herb Kohl in Wisconsin. These may not count as partisan pickups, but to liberals they surely count as ideological pick-me-ups.

Finally, there are the intangible gains in gender and sexual orientation diversity for Reid’s caucus. Two years after the 2010 midterm cycle in which the GOP produced its biggest female cohort of U.S. representatives, four of the five newly elected 2012 class of female senators are Democrats. And that 80 percent share will also prevail chamber-wide in the new 113thCongress, with Democrats accounting for 16 of the record-setting, 20-member female caucus. The four rookie female Democrats include the first Asian American woman ever elected to the Senate, Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono; surprise-of-the-night winner and moderate Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota; Baldwin, the first openly gay senator ever elected; and progressive superstar Elizabeth Warren, who recaptured Ted Kennedy’s old seat in Massachusetts from Scott Brown.

All in all, it was a huge night for both Reid and the key female candidates who delivered the kind of victory Senate Democrats just a few months ago could barely imagine was even possible.


Of course, Reid’s net gains stood up only because Democrats managed to hold two seats they almost certainly would have lost had the election taken place four months ago. In Missouri and then in Indiana, Tea Party favorites Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock self-imploded after revealing their archaic ideas about what constitutes rape and whether pregnancies resulting from rape should be brought to term. Respectively, their two epic collapses allowed Claire McCaskill to survive her first reelection bid and Rep. Joe Donnelly to gain promotion from the House to the Senate. Montana incumbent Jon Tester also won a squeaker over Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.

Reid needed a bit of luck, sure. But being lucky is usually less important than being excellent, as the Obama field campaign team proved this cycle. Speaking of Obama connections, Reid and Obama both use the consulting firm GMMB, which took a few deserved victory laps of its own Tuesday night after watching campaigns for which it created independent expenditure ads — including Kaine, King, Heitkamp, McCaskill, Tester, plus fellow Democrats Martin Heinrich in New Mexico and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan — all win or hold Senate seats.


So what does it all mean for Reid, Senate Democrats and even Obama’s second-term agenda?

At his post-election press conference Wednesday, a buoyant Reid spoke optimistically about averting the looming fiscal cliff, and specifically claimed that Tuesday night’s results provided the political warrant to finally raise revenues on the wealthiest Americans. “The mandate was, look at all the exit polls, look at all the polling, the vast majority of the American people, rich, poor, everybody agrees that the rich — richest of the rich — have to help a little bit,” said Reid, in his famously mangled grammar.

In his own post-election presser Wednesday, Boehner laid down a marker about taxes on the rich, signaling very clearly that his caucus would not support tax increases. Boehner lost a few net seats from his House Republican caucus Tuesday, but maintains a solid and solidly conservative majority in what continues to be the national Republican Party’s firewall institution, the U.S. House. Because the House, interest groups and the conservative media will be allied against them, Reid and President Obama will need to be firm in asserting both their own electoral mandates and the strong public support for raising taxes on the rich evident in polls if they hope to enact new revenues.


Meanwhile, the two-seat gain doesn’t solve all of Reid’s problems on the west side of Capitol Hill, either. His 55-seat majority, including Maine’s King, will be far from a filibuster-proof. Reid has already called for filibuster reform in the next Congress. But given the Republicans’ historical advantage in small states in the Senate as they do in the Electoral College, his chances of winning filibuster reform are only slightly better than a constitutional amendment to establishing national popular voting for president. And the downside of having Warren in his expanded majority is that she replaces the most moderate Republican (in fact, most moderate — period) in the Senate.

The first test of Reid’s new muscle could be the fiscal cliff fight during the next six weeks. Unfortunately for him, that battle will unfold in the Senate as currently composed, before the 113thCongress is sworn in the first week of January. If he can’t get what he wants from the lame-duck Congress, Reid may want to settle for a temporary band-aid and wait for his new troops to arrive before crafting a long-term deal with House Republicans. After all, Boehner may also have more breathing room in 2013, given that some of his more rabid Tea Party types (Joe Walsh of Illinois, Allen West of Florida) will be gone, and Michele Bachmann might proceed more cautiously now that she barely escaped defeat on Tuesday night. (Emphasis on “might.”)

Washington had divided partisan government for 40 of the past 60 years, and the next two years will be no different. It’s the new normal, and Reid will surely experience his share of headaches during the 113thCongress. For this week, however, he’s a big winner — maybe the biggest. The Senate’s top dog managed to defend more than twice as many seats as the Republicans did and still came out plus-two. He’s entitled to a few moments to just savor a very rewarding 2012 election before the hard work begins anew.

Thomas F. Schaller

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2012 Elections Harry Reid John Boehner U.s. Congress U.s. Senate