President Obama is back in Vegas Friday campaigning for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who is locked in a tight race with Tea Party opponent Sharron Angle, but while polls show the two candidates have the thinnest of margins separating them, some in Washington are already wondering what would change on Capitol Hill if Reid were to lose.
The president is in the middle of a western state swing - campaigning for incumbent Senate Democrats in Washington State, California and Nevada. But beyond just the one person in charge, the Obama administration is also focused on how to get all incumbent Democrats back to Washington - no easy task in a political environment that appears hostile to the party in power. The latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll shows that 75 percent of likely voters are either "extremely worried" or "very worried" about the future of the country, while only 24 percent are "not very worried" or "not worried at all."
But while the White House is focused on November 2, others in Washington are already reading the tea leaves about what's to come in January when the Senate starts its new session. Reid was instrumental in helping to get health care legislation passed in March, but critics say Reid has become "a legislative enabler" for the president - which could result in him being a potential liability in the 2012 election. "ObamaCare is a great example of Senator Reid providing a legislative accomplishment to the president at great cost to the popularity of the president and Senator Reid," says Brian Darling of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Not surprisingly, the White House feels differently than Darling does about Reid. "I think Senator Reid is somebody who has obviously done a lot to ensure our success in the United States Senate; was a supporter, somebody who urged the president to run very early. So obviously there's a lot of respect for what he's been able to do over the past several years. And it's a very important race," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One Thursday.
The race in Nevada has proven to be tougher than Reid or the White House ever imagined. While Angle is known for her sometimes "radical" views on education and immigration, the Tea Party movement has made a concerted effort in Nevada, even sending big names like Sarah Palin in to rally the masses. Fox News' PowerPlay reports that Reid was making progress in the polls, but in the final push he's losing steam. "Reid might have been better off to keep Obama behind closed doors, stick with a low profile and hope that Angle's gaffes, like commenting on the likely ethnic origins of schoolchildren, would continue to dominate the mainstream airwaves," according to PowerPlay.
For his part, Reid is aware that there's potential for losing voters by aligning himself with Obama, but appearing on MSNBC Thursday he downplayed that issue. "I want the president to feel good about Nevada," Reid told Ed Schultz. "He has helped the state of Nevada, and I want him to continue to help the state of Nevada."
Regardless of the help Reid believes Obama has given Nevada, the state is still suffering. Unemployment sits at 14 percent, the second highest in the nation, and as Darling points out, it was the Democratic leader who promised to help create jobs with the new stimulus plan.
The White House is not impervious to these critics. Gibbs acknowledges Nevada has been hard-hit by the economic downturn, but remains optimistic voters will make the decision to vote for Reid and not for Angle. "I do think people make judgments about whether somebody has the judgment and the wherewithal to serve and represent an entire state in the United States Senate. And I think on Election Day, they'll register their opinion and make up their mind on behalf of sending Harry Reid back as somebody who works hard for constituents in that state," Gibbs said.
However much the White House is hoping Reid will pull through; experts say there's a possibility that without Reid the president might be able to get certain legislation passed - like cap and trade. In the State of the Union address in January, Obama said he wanted to "help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate" and pass a climate bill. That bill continues to languish as the Senate grew more contentious. The two parties have not been able to reach a consensus on the bill, and critics say that's all on Reid. "Reid's highly partisan leadership in the Senate is the proximate cause of the lack of progress on cap and trade or any legislation addressing so called ‘climate change.' There was money put in the Stimulus plan for alternative energy, but the big fight over the House passed Cap and Trade bill made no progress in the Senate," says Darling.
So while the White House waits for the outcome, pundits are already spinning who could be the next leader for the Democrats in the Senate. In hushed tones, Washington is talking about both Majority Whip Dick Durbin and New York's senior Senator Chuck Schumer as potential successors to Reid, although nobody is willing to admit defeat for Reid - at least not yet. However, if Reid were to lose, experts say don't expect a big fight between Durbin and Schumer for the leadership role. "They are different personalities. But, both are, at this point, extremely well liked by their colleagues," says Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.