Monday, Nov. 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Tired of the Nevada election and looking for the next big thing?
Consider turning your attention to Kentucky, where you can get a glimpse of ... imagine this ... Nevada in 2010.
In the Bluegrass State, the leader of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, is in a fight for his political life because the Senate Democratic election apparatus is trying to oust him.
Republicans plan to retaliate in 2010 by doing the same thing to the Democratic leader, Nevada’s Harry Reid, who will be trying to win another six-year term.
The tactics of both sides are a stark departure from the decorum in Senate races that prevailed for more than a century. Campaigns operated within their own state borders, with the understanding that out-of-state senators wouldn’t cross state lines to campaign against a member of the opposing party.
But that changed in 2004, when Republicans targeted and defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Democrats say the campaign against McConnell is just a chance to pick up another seat, rather than payback. But if it works, their celebration may be muted. Yes, they won. Targeting the opposition’s leader has worked each time a political party used it.
But Reid is up next.
As one Republican strategist said, the fierce Democratic attempt to take down McConnell “is more than in years past,” and “less than what it will be in the future.”
In Kentucky, the Senate Democratic campaign committee has poured nearly $2 million into the race in the past two weeks alone. Sen. Hillary Clinton appears in an ad for McConnell’s opponent, Bruce Lansford. She and Bill Clinton have worked the campaign trail for the Democrat. Reid apparently has allowed the attacks to unfold.
Republicans are planning to go after him with a vengeance and in many ways, that campaign has begun. The Republican National Committee, as well as the state Republican Party and more recently outside groups such as Freedom’s Watch, have dished out steady criticism of Reid since he became party leader after the 2004 election.
In one of his early speeches on the Senate floor in 2005, Reid called on President Bush to repudiate Republican attacks, noting that the president had offered to set a “better tone” with the new Congress.
Reid has said he has a target on his back. “I don’t think anyone has any expectation Republicans would run anything less than an attack-driven campaign,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said. “They started that campaign against him immediately. And we expect it will continue.”
This tactic of targeting the opposition’s leader is starting to feel like an ancient family feud, with each side inflicting such reflexive pain on the other it’s hard to remember how it all began.
Senate Associate Historian Donald A. Ritchie is a helpful guide here, reminding that the parties have targeted leaders on the campaign trail if it suits them. The parties have long funneled national money into individual Senate election campaigns. But until 2004, no individual senator had ever crossed a state line to campaign in person against a member from the other party since 1901.
That changed in the Daschle campaign, when Republican Sen. Bill Frist, then majority leader, shocked sensibilities by venturing into South Dakota.
Daschle’s defeat coined a verb — as in, Republicans will try to “Daschle” Reid in 2010.
The defeat was still ringing when the Democratic campaign arm in the Senate, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, sought to pick up the Kentucky seat this election cycle. “Harry Reid and I discussed this,” Schumer told reporters recently. “There had been rules of etiquette ... and the rules of etiquette were broken with Tom Daschle.”
But to be clear, Reid and the Democrats are still not crossing the lines Frist did when he stepped onto South Dakota soil in 2004. Individual Democratic senators have gone to the state, but their leader, Reid, has not done as Frist did. Nor has Reid appeared in any TV ads in the state.
Schumer offers another distinction. He insists the committee was going after the Kentucky seat — not the senator by virtue of his leadership position. Schumer says Democrats targeted the seat because polls showed it might be won.
Having the campaign arm go after the seat is well within bounds, both sides agree.
Just expect the same in Nevada, Republicans say.
Schumer mused that perhaps this race would lead to a detente of sorts, and etiquette “would be restored after this election, whatever the outcome in Kentucky.” That’s the kind of wishful thinking all battle-weary warriors must feel at some point as they’re torching city walls.
More realistically, though, it is the children of the war who say enough is enough.
Senate leaders years from now, more familiar with Daschle the word than the man, may decide for their own self-preservation the best way to take the target off their back is to ignore the one on their colleague across the aisle.
Lisa Mascaro can be reached at (202) 662-7436 or at [email protected]