Did Harry Reid get a softball opponent?

After the elections, the talk of the Capitol was . . . Stephen Strasburg.
After the elections, the talk of the Capitol was . . . Stephen Strasburg. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Harry Reid is looking at life from a whole new Angle.

Only weeks ago, the Senate majority leader was a dead man walking, facing a seemingly inevitable defeat in his reelection battle in Nevada. But then came Tuesday's primary, and Republicans selected as their candidate Sharron Angle, a woman who, among other things, favors bringing more nuclear waste to Nevada, floated the idea of outlawing alcohol, and wants to abolish the Education Department, the Energy Department, the EPA, the United Nations and most of the IRS. She's not so keen on Social Security, Medicare or unemployment insurance, either.

That would explain the uncharacteristic smile on Reid's face as he opened Wednesday morning's Senate session. Instead of his usual stemwinder denouncing the obstructionist minority, he engaged his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a celebration of the national pastime.

"I watched on television last night much of the performance of this 21-year-old phenom, Stephen Strasburg," the majority leader declared. "Seven innings, he struck out 14. . . . He's right-handed but reminded me so much of Sandy Koufax because he throws more than 100 miles an hour. He throws a curveball at 85 miles per hour." Reid went on to discuss, in no apparent order, the Nationals' latest draft pick (from Nevada), Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, the old Griffith Stadium, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra.

McConnell offered the Republican response. "I was there," he said of the Nats game. "Remarkable."

"I wish I could have been there," Reid said. "But it was really, even watching it on TV -- gee whiz."

Gee whiz?

It's a measure of this strange political year that Harry Reid, thanks to the tea party, now has a solid chance to win a fifth term in the Senate. More than half of Nevadans have an unfavorable opinion of Reid -- which means he should have been an easy target for Republicans as they forced him to defend the economy and the national debt. Instead, the campaign now seems more likely to revolve around Angle's oddities. Gee whiz.

Within minutes of the primary win by the tea-party-backed Angle, a gleeful Nevada Democratic Party sent out a news release calling Reid's opponent "Sharron 'Wacky' Angle." Following that was a list of some of the stranger things Angle has said and done over the years: supporting the view that abortion causes breast cancer, proposing a program created by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to give massages and saunas to prisoners, and making the odd statement that drug sales "supported the attack" on 9/11 "and the attack of terror continues against our children in the form of club drugs, particularly Ecstasy."

With the party doing his dirty work, Reid could afford to be generous to his opponent. "I congratulated my Republican opponent in the election, Sharron Angle, about the campaign she ran," Reid announced on the Senate floor before his baseball analysis. "She actually came from nowhere in a 13-person field in the primary to win this election. So I extended my appreciation to her in that regard."

No doubt Reid's appreciation is genuine. In one interview after the primary, KRNV in Reno asked whether he was worried that Angle would benefit from the anti-incumbent atmosphere. "Tonight didn't indicate that at all," said Reid, who easily vanquished his little-known challengers on the Democratic side. "In Arkansas, my agriculture chair, Blanche Lincoln . . . everybody said she was a goner, an incumbent -- she won by a nice margin."

Reid is half right about that. On the Republican side, tea party activists are indeed causing havoc for incumbents and other candidates endorsed by party leaders; that's how Angle beat the party's favorite. But on the Democratic side, the left hasn't shown the same level of energy, as demonstrated by Lincoln's victory in Arkansas' Democratic Senate primary over more liberal insurgent Bill Halter.

Lincoln was embraced by her colleagues on the Senate floor as a conquering general returning from war. Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), in charge of the Senate Democrats' campaign effort, gave her a hug and a kiss and said, "Now we just have to raise money." Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) held up two fists and said of her primary campaign: "Fighting Wall Street with one hand, unions with the other."

Lincoln received bipartisan hugs, kisses, handshakes and even a fist bump. Sen. Claire McCaskill applauded and let out a "woo-hoo." Reid walked over and put one hand on Lincoln's shoulder and the other on the shoulder of Sen. Barbara Boxer, another primary survivor.

Congratulations for Reid were less overt. But there was a perceptible change in the way senators greeted him. Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Schumer had been lining up support to succeed Reid as majority leader under the assumption that he would lose his seat. But now both men were part of a long procession of senators approaching Reid, some with notecards in hand, to hear his wisdom, gain his favor or plead for help.

Majority Leader Lazarus was back -- and ready to play ball.

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