Why The “Extreme” Strategy Is Working For Harry Reid, But Probably No One Else

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Democrats have reacted to Tea Party-fueled Senate bids from the likes of Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Ken Buck and now Joe Miller with a simple message: Republicans are “too extreme.” Uncertain if the anti-Bush mantra of recent cycles still resonates and disconcerted by a serious enthusiasm gap, Democrats have fixated on persuading voters that the GOP candidates of today are, well, crazy:

Nowhere has this strategy been pursued more aggressively than in Nevada, where Senator Harry Reid is running ad after ad hammering Angle on everything from Social Security to prison massage programs. And, while she’s been landing punches of her own, it looks like Reid is having some success. He has a slim lead in the average of recent polling and, more tellingly, two thirds of Angle supporters now say they would prefer someone else atop the Republican ticket — a rather stunning case of buyer’s remorse to have set in since the June primary.

But here’s the thing: Democrats shouldn’t ride the euphoria of Reid’s improved situation too high. There are several reasons why this approach, while viable in the Silver State, doesn’t necessarily translate elsewhere.

Nevadans know Harry Reid and many of them don’t particularly like him. How does this help him knock Angle aside and win re-election? It doesn’t really. But he can sling a lot of mud and not worry about getting a little on himself; his approval rating is already below 50 percent. Well-liked or new-on-the-scene Democratic candidates run the risk of tainting their own image by relentlessly attacking their opponents. Part of the reason this can work well for Reid is the following:

Silver Staters won’t have to vote for Reid or Angle. Nevada has a “none of these candidates” ballot option, which means that if voters have a bad impression of both candidates, they can just go ahead and pull the lever for none of the above. If Reid can sour enough people on Angle, he improves his chances of winning by decision. There’s no such thing as a bitter plurality victory in most states — it’s candidate A or B and the one who captures 50 percent plus one wins. And that requires 50 percent plus one being able to stomach said candidate.

Reid has a lot of material to work with. Despite what Democrats will tell you, not all Tea Party-loving Republicans are the same. Angle is a uniquely eccentric candidate and, while political ads often rely on hyperbole, nothing hits home quite like candidates saying things in their own words. (Just ask Arlen Specter.)

The seat is symbolic. Being Majority Leader means Democrats will do what it takes to defend Reid. Thanks to his establishment foundation and powerbroker status in Washington, he won’t lack for cash. Reid can flood the zone with TV ads and have plenty of independent expenditure groups pile on with the same message:

Reid was on the air very early with a bunch of positive spots. He had time and money to salvage what he could of his public image before the slugfest with Angle began in earnest, and he didn’t have to deal with a primary challenge. Not all Democratic incumbents have been so fortunate.

Despite these crucial differences, Democrats have been increasingly gravitating to the “too extreme” strategy in recent weeks. Though it seems to be doing the trick in Nevada, and it might serve to excite the base and drive up turnout — all important in an off year — Democrats would be wise to remember that what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. (It is, of course, very good for the ad makers.)