(Updates with Herzik comments starting in second-to-last paragraph.)
By Kathleen Hunter
May 16 (Bloomberg) -- Republicans are invoking a harrowing image of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to lure independent voters away from Democrats and motivate their party base ahead of November’s election.
The strategy has a big glitch: Almost half the voters don’t know who Reid is.
Republicans needn’t worry too much, though, as Reid’s line of attack against them isn’t much better. He’s focused on an even lesser-known pair of bogeymen, the energy billionaire Koch brothers, who are financing a number of pro-Republican groups.
“To normal independent voters, the most obscure story possible would be a fight between Reid and the Koch brothers over Benghazi,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, in a reference to the 2012 attack on a Libya diplomatic post that left four Americans dead.
“Most normal human beings outside of the state of Nevada neither know nor care who Harry Reid is. I’m sure most people associate the Koch brothers with a certain cola beverage,” Pitney said.
Unlike presidential campaigns, elections held in the middle of a White House term tend to lack broad themes and big personalities. Even so, that hasn’t stopped leaders in Washington from trying to latch on to Reid and the Koch brothers to personify the traits of the other party that could turn voters away.
Democrats had some luck with a similar strategy in seizing on a series of Republican scandals in 2006 and rode a throw-the-bums-out campaign to the U.S. House majority. During the 2010 midterms, Republicans joined a grassroots rebellion against the passage of Obamacare to regain control of the chamber.
Other messages flopped. To try to salvage their majority, congressional Republicans in 2006 attempted to use a family’s fight over whether to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a vegetative state, as an emblem of their support for the sanctity of life. It never caught on with voters.
In this year’s election, Republican candidates in competitive Senate races have been invoking Reid on the stump, in campaign ads and in fundraising memos as they work to help their party win the net six seats needed to secure a majority in the 100-member chamber.
The Republican National Committee released an April 22 memo criticizing Reid, arguing that “firing Harry Reid from his position as majority leader” was a reason to vote Senate Democrats out of office in November.
Reid figured prominently in North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis’s acceptance speech after securing the party’s U.S. Senate nomination.
Tillis, the state House speaker, told supporters that his “primary mission” is to defeat Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan “and make Harry Reid irrelevant.” He added that Hagan and Reid “are nothing but an echo chamber for President Obama’s worst ideas,” according to the News and Observer of Raleigh.
Colorado Representative Cory Gardner, who is challenging first-term Democrat Mark Udall, pledged “to make Harry Reid a footnote in history.” And in Georgia, Representative Paul Broun -- one of a half-dozen Republicans seeking to win a May 20 primary take on Democrat Michelle Nunn -- referred to Nunn in an e-mail to supporters as “the anointed candidate of the president, first lady and Harry Reid.”
Reid said on the Senate floor May 13 that an unidentified Democratic senator had told him he wished Republicans would go after Reid in his state because “nobody knows who you are.”
“They are getting desperate for something to change their tune,” Reid said.
New York Senator Charles Schumer, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, said the Republican strategy won’t work in the November match-ups, while his party’s plan to target the Kochs will.
“I think the Koch brothers are an issue -- the fact that three or four wealthy people can set the whole agenda in this country,” Schumer said.
The Kochs’ political spending makes them a target. Reid yesterday called them “a couple of billionaire oil barons” who were staging a “bid for a hostile takeover of American democracy” designed to “make themselves even richer.”
Polling indicates that Reid is better-known than the Koch Brothers -- and more disliked.
A George Washington University poll conducted March 16-20 found that almost half of likely voters nationwide -- 41 percent -- hadn’t heard of or had no opinion of Reid, while 35 percent held an unfavorable view of him. Almost two-thirds of likely voters -- 63 percent -- weren’t aware of or had no opinion of the Koch brothers, while 25 percent viewed them unfavorably, according to the same poll.
A Gallup Poll released yesterday showed that 32 percent of Americans hadn’t heard of Reid, while 41 percent held unfavorable views of him. That survey was conducted April 24-30.
The role of Democratic attack dog is one that Reid relishes. In 2012, he repeatedly accused Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney of not paying taxes, and called former President George W. Bush a “loser” and a “liar.”
The effort to tie this year’s Democratic Senate candidates to Reid may have repercussions for Reid’s bid in two years for a sixth Senate term. The shrewd senator said in an interview at the Capitol that he anticipates the Koch brothers will help fund his eventual 2016 Republican opponent.
“I’m told they’re going to spend against me,” he said, adding that for now he’s “just focusing on” his job as majority leader.
Still, Reid said he isn’t taking anything for granted in his race two years from now.
“Over the years, I do the best I can and realize I only need one more than 50 -- my elections are normally quite close,” he said.
Erik Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Reno, said Reid “has made a career out of being underestimated at election time,” noting that his political team is gearing up for the 2016 campaign.
“They’re already starting,” Herzik said. “Their getting their organization back into place. I’m sure they’re doing candidate research.”