'Depose Harry Reid' is rallying cry for GOP Senate candidates: Good strategy?

From Kentucky to Alaska, GOP Senate candidates argue that a vote for a Democrat is a vote for majority leader Harry Reid. Cast your ballot for the Republican, and you can flip the Senate and dump the dictator, they say.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks to reporters after the Democratic party policy luncheon in the Capitol in Washington September 16, 2014.

In their first debate earlier this month, Pat Roberts, the embattled Republican senator from red-state Kansas, took out his rhetorical shotgun and aimed it at his challenger, Independent Greg Orman:

“My opponent wants you to believe he’s an independent. He is not. He is a liberal Democrat by philosophy. He has given thousands of dollars to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, listen to this, listen to this, Harry Reid!” 

Senator Roberts mentioned Senator Reid 17 times. But the Democrat from Nevada, who leads the US Senate, is unknown to many voters – raising questions about whether firing off rounds about Reid will be about as powerful as using rubber bullets.

Republicans view Reid as a tyrant, blocking the GOP agenda and doing Mr. Obama’s bidding. From Kentucky to Alaska, Republican Senate candidates argue that a vote for a Democrat (or independent, in Mr. Orman’s case) is a vote for Reid. Cast your ballot for the Republican, and you can flip the Senate and dump the dictator, they say.

It’s a strategy reminiscent of 2010, when Republicans turned disapproval of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California into a national issue, helping the GOP win control of that chamber. But experts have their doubts about Reid as an effective weapon.

“Most voters do not know who leads the Senate. You’re lucky if they know which party is in control. So trying to make a contest a referendum on a particular party leader is a tough sell,” says Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

On the other hand, he says, even uninformed voters have “a basic impulse” to seek balance in institutions. “When you have a Democratic president, they can sense that they need to put someone who is more conservative into Congress to counterbalance that,” Professor Voss says.

That could work in a state like Kentucky, which twice rejected candidate Obama and where many Democrats have conservative leanings, says Voss.

Certainly that’s what Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky hopes. The five-term incumbent, who leads the GOP minority in the Senate, often equates Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes with Reid (though even more often with Obama). Were the Senate to flip to the GOP – and Republicans need to gain six seats for that to happen – Senator McConnell (if he wins his own race) would probably be the new Senate leader.

Firing away at Reid could help excite the “regular” GOP base in Kansas, says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. But in that debate earlier this month, Roberts mentioned Reid so often that Orman joked about it. It made Roberts look desperate and like a Washington insider, Professor Loomis says.

Such an image could backfire with tea party voters, who gave Roberts a scare in the August primary when 41 percent swung behind tea party candidate Milton Wolf. 

“It just conveys back to tea party people, ‘I am a creature of Washington,’ ” Loomis says. “It doesn’t demonstrate to Kansans that Pat Roberts is vigorously for anything. He’s not proposing policies. He’s just saying, ‘Our team ought to be in there.' ”

Swing voters are unlikely to be swayed by an anti-Reid argument. That was the conclusion of two focus groups with so-called Walmart moms in the Senate battleground states of Iowa and Arkansas on Sept. 9.

Few of the participants knew which party controlled the Senate, and “next to no one” said that flipping the Senate (or preventing a flip) would drive their vote, according to a memo by the Walmart moms bipartisan research team from Public Opinion Strategies and Purple Strategies.

“Few see how changing control of the Senate would impact them personally,” the memo said. “Frankly, few believe it would even matter who is in control – for them, the partisanship gridlock would not improve, no matter who is in charge.” Even Obama "is not a driving factor" among the moms, it said.

One of the participants, Louise in Grimes, Iowa, was contacted by the Monitor and was asked about Reid. 

"I have no idea who Harry Reid is. Never heard of him."

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