Invoking 'Fire Pelosi' from 2010, GOP takes on Harry Reid. Will it work?

The GOP is trying to demonize Senate majority leader Harry Reid as a way to defeat vulnerable Democrats and take over the Senate. But the tactic's effectiveness is questionable. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks with reporters about gun control at the Capitol in Washington, in April, 2013.

Harry Reid of Nevada, the top Democrat in the Senate, isn’t on the ballot this November. But Republicans are effectively trying to put him there.

By going after Senator Reid, the theory goes, Republicans will make him poisonous to Democratic senators in tough reelection battles around the country – the very Democrats Reid needs to hold onto the majority leader job. 

Republicans say the tactic worked in 2010, when they made “Fire Pelosi” the rallying cry in their effort to retake the House and boot then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi out of the speaker’s chair. The Democrats got skunked, and Speaker Pelosi got demoted.

On Wednesday, Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus launched his party’s latest attack on Reid: a charge that he is violating Senate ethics rules by putting “partisan campaign attacks” on his Senate website and Twitter feed.

“You have to put a marker down and say, ‘Wait a second. You are not going to use a taxpayer web site and a taxpayer Twitter account to attack Republicans,’ ” Mr. Priebus said on Fox and Friends.

Reid’s biggest target is a pair of brothers, billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who donate to political action committees that target Democrats. Republicans also flooded Twitter with the #FireReid hashtag.

Reid’s spokesman didn’t reply directly to the ethics charge, instead returning fire on the GOP.

"Republicans' blind obedience to the shadowy billionaire Koch brothers is on full display today,” said spokesman Adam Jentleson in a statement. “Nothing says 'Republicans are the party of the top 1 percent' like lashing out with meritless complaints as a screen to defend the Koch brothers as they rig the system to benefit billionaires like themselves.”

Democrats say the turn of Republican sights to Reid is also a sign that the GOP message attacking Obamacare isn’t working.

Whether Republicans can turn Reid into the bogeyman of the 2014 midterms is an open question. Reid’s public persona is low-key and at times awkward, though behind the scenes, he is seen as a wily operator.

Still, many Americans have either never heard of Reid or have no opinion of him. A George Washington University Battleground Poll released last month found 24 percent of Americans view Reid favorably, 35 percent view him unfavorably, 16 percent have no opinion, and 25 percent have never heard of him.

On the public anonymity front, the Koch brothers fare even better: In the same poll, 52 percent of Americans have never heard of them, 12 percent view them favorably, 25 percent see them unfavorably, and 11 percent have no opinion.

Priebus’s attack on Reid Wednesday was just the latest in a series of charges leveled against the Nevada senator. Late last month, Reid was confronted with allegations that his campaign had paid his granddaughter almost $17,000 for “holiday gifts.” Reid denied he had done anything wrong, but agreed to reimburse his campaign account.

Reid is also taking grief for the actions of a super political action committee run by his former staffers, the Senate Majority PAC. The super PAC has run three ads in recent weeks that the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded “four Pinocchios” – its worst rating.

One ad goes after Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) of Louisiana, a top challenger to vulnerable Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana. It accused the Koch brothers of funding “the fight to let flood insurance premiums soar” and of trying to buy Senator Landrieu’s seat for Congressman Cassidy. According to Fact Checker, the ad employed “a very deceptive technique: stringing together a variety of true (or semi-true) statements in an effort to completely mislead viewers.”

Republicans are also calling Reid a “hypocrite,” as they highlight a 2003 campaign donation of $500 to Reid by a former Koch Industries lobbyist.

“Will all of these charges against Reid stick? Probably not,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “But Republicans loathe Harry Reid. He’s on a par with Nancy Pelosi. It helps them put a face on another reason why they should take the Senate.”

The attacks on Reid also energize mega-donors, who may then open their wallets again, Mr. O’Connell says.

But is there any proof that tying a candidate to his or her party’s leaders in Washington really makes a difference with voters on Election Day? No, says political scientist John Sides of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“I know of no evidence suggesting that demonizing Pelosi hurt Democratic congressional candidates” in 2010, Mr. Sides writes in an e-mail. “I would suspect that attacks on Pelosi paled in comparison to other factors working against the Democrats.”

Sides lists some of the factors: the drop in Obama's popularity in 2009-2010; the slow economy; the fact that the president's party usually loses seats in the midterms; and opposition to the Obama administration's policy agenda.

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