Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has never been one for finely crafted turns of phrase. News this month that the Nevada Democrat said in 2008 that then candidate Barack Obama had a good chance of winning the presidency because of his "light-skinned" appearance and because he spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" set off a firestorm. Reid had made statements before that prompted colleagues to shake their heads. He noted during a December, 2008 speech dedicating the Capitol Visitor Center in that in the summer, you can "literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol." He added unabashedly, "My staff has always said, 'Don't say this,' but I'm going to say it again because it's so descriptive because it's true."
But the use of the word Negro by a 70-year-old white man smacked of racism, Republican leaders, with no small amount of schadenfreude, pointed out. Sen. John McCain complained of a "stunning" double standard, noting that Trent Lott was forced out of his Senate majority leader post in 2002 when he made remarks lamenting Strom Thurmond's 1948 election loss. (Thurmond ran as a segregationist.)
Even more problematic for the man in charge of corralling Senate votes is Massachusetts Republican candidate Scott Brown's election victory last week, ending the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority. Now, Reid has said that he will "wait until the new senator arrives until we do anything more on healthcare." Brown's victory signals considerable mid-term worries for Democrats, including Reid, who face tough reelection bids. "If there's anybody in this building that doesn't tell you they are more worried about elections today, you should absolutely slap them," Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, told reporters. "Of course everybody is more worried about elections. Are you kidding?"
This is true for Reid particularly. Tourism in Nevada is down by as much as 30 percent in a state that is currently number one in home foreclosures. In December, Reid faced a 49 percent unfavorable rating in his home state. The latest polls find that Republican challenger Sue Lowden now leads Reid among voters, 50 to 40 percent.
Of equal concern to Reid are the Latino voters in his state. They make up 13 percent of Nevada's population, and last year they were 15 percent of the voters there. Reid is expected to pursue immigration reform legislation in the months to come, regardless of whether it has a realistic chance of passing. But he angered the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders in December when he compared opponents of healthcare legislation to racists who opposed civil rights. "You think you've heard these same excuses before? You're right," he said in a floor speech. "In this country, there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down. It's too early. Let's wait. Things aren't bad enough' about slavery." The group demanded an apology; Reid defended his remarks, saying they were misinterpreted.
But Reid makes up for his dearth of smoothness, supporters say, with a well-honed ability to put together coalitions and, more important, keep them together. What's more, even if he does decide to bow out of the race (which Reid insists won't happen), there is no viable Democratic candidate to replace him. It helped that Reid began working the phones immediately after news of his comments broke, reaching out to party colleagues, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, all of whom came to his defense. They pointed to his long record of protecting minority rights—in contrast, they added, to Lott at the time of his ouster. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to step into the fray, noting simply that "I think that's an issue for the Democratic conference." The two are said to have a close working relationship.For these reasons, most expect the scrappy Reid, a former amateur boxer, to keep fighting. And his fellow Democrats plan to do the same.