Dems back away from Harry Reid in wake of Nevadan’s racially charged comments on Barack Obama

Jon Ward Contributor
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The first signs of abandonment from within Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid‘s own party emerged Sunday, as some Democrats said his racially charged comments about President Obama have placed his already perilous reelection prospects on the precipice.

“He’s in deep trouble, I think,” said one senior aide to a member of the House Democratic leadership. “Even with the apology, no matter what it’s a negative thing. There are a lot of minorities that vote [in Nevada].”

Asked whether lawmakers who are next in line to be majority leader – such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, or Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois – would begin to target Reid, the senior Democrat said there would be no point.

“Why throw more gas on the fire when he appears to be going down anyway?” the aide said.

Another senior House Democratic leadership aide described his reaction when he learned of Reid’s comments: “My jaw dropped.”

L. Douglas Wilder, who 20 years ago became the first African-American governor by winning election in Virginia, called Reid’s remarks “unfortunate.”

“He’s got enough problems on his own, trying to get reelected in Nevada,” Wilder said on CNN’s “State of the Union with John King.”

Top Republicans went hard after Reid on Sunday. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, whose own leadership has once again been questioned recently, called on the majority leader to resign his leadership post.

“Whether he steps down today or I retire him in November, either way, he will not be the leader in 2011,” said Steele on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also called on Reid to step down.

Markos Moulitsas, the prominent liberal blogger and grassroots activist, went one step further, stating on his Twitter feed that he hoped Reid would not only resign leadership but also retire, “so we can hold the Nevada Senate seat.”

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the majority leader “has no intention of stepping down.”

“Senator Reid has apologized for his comments and is deeply embarrassed. He knows that his words were inappropriate and he deeply regrets using them,” Manley said.

Prior to this weekend, Reid was already regarded as the most vulnerable Democratic senator up for reelection this fall, and has consistently trailed his Republican opponents in polling. A Mason-Dixon poll released Saturday showed him with a 52 percent unfavorable rating and only 33 percent favorability.

In the same poll, both Republican frontrunners for the GOP nomination were several points ahead of Reid in head to head measurements.

Then, also Saturday, it came to light that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Reid said Barack Obama could win the election because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” The comment was first reported in a new book about the 2008 election, “Game Change,” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Reid called the president to apologize, and Obama quickly issued a statement saying he accepted the apology and that “as far as I am concerned, the book is closed.” Leading African-American politicians and figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton also made a public show of support.

Although Democrats continued to publicly back Reid on Sunday, their remarks were tinged with concern.

“I think his election is going to be tough, especially in this political climate, but I hope the voters in Nevada would look at his entire political record, as a lawmaker who has fought for his constituents,” said longtime Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, who is African-American.

Jamal Simmons, another top Democratic strategist, and also an African-American, concurred.

“In Nevada, citizens know that as majority leader he can do more for the state than any other legislator. His words were unfortunate, but his track record is in good shape,” Simmons said.

A senior Reid official said he thought the majority leader would weather the storm.

“We moved aggressively and quickly. Lots of talk on the Sunday shows but we will get past it,” he said.

But the comments are certain to resurface once the Republican party in Nevada has decided on a nominee, after the June 8 primary.

Robert Uithoven, campaign manager for Sue Lowden, one of the two Republican frontrunners for the nomination, said that their campaign intends to highlight Reid’s comments in campaign ads this summer.

“The overall pattern will definitely be addressed in the general election. This is significant news, a pattern of offensive comments over the years. The issue of a pattern of poor judgment will be addressed,” Uithoven said.

Uithoven pointed to Reid comments over the last few years where the majority leader said he was happy a Capitol visitors center had been built so he would no longer have to “smell the tourists,” called Tea Party protesters “evil-mongers,” said the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy would “help” Democrats politically, and just last month compared opponents of health care reform so advocates of slavery.

“Any time he opens his mouth, things like this come out and pressure builds and he has to get on the phone and apologize and get people to apologize for him. It’s been a pattern,” Uithoven said.

Alex Pappas contributed to this report