Ask Kelly Steele if he deserves the credit for turning around Harry Reid’s once-moribund reelection campaign and he will flash the sharp edges he’s known for in Democratic political circles.
“I came on to a campaign that was up and running and chock full of solid professionals in every single department,” Steele tells us. “And I think singling me out or any one individual for the enormous progress we’ve been able to make in the last few months is grossly unfair.”
But talk to Democratic consultants and aides in Washington and Nevada and they point to Steele’s arrival on the majority leader’s campaign in March as a pivotal move that helped turn Reid’s fortunes around — by merciless and withering criticism of Sue Lowden, the Republican once expected to be Reid’s general election rival.
Three months later, Lowden’s campaign has been swept into the dustbin and team Reid is breathing a sigh of relief that the general election opponent is the much more beatable Sharron Angle.
“In my opinion, Lowden would be the nominee if Kelly Steele and Matt Fuehrmeyer weren’t so relentless and she’d still be leading in the polls,” one Democratic strategist tells TPM. “[They knew] they were going to have to absolutely wreck whoever was running against them.”
And that’s where Steele factors in—to help Reid, as his team puts it, “vaporize” his opponent. He came aboard earlier this year, along with Reid’s long-time spokesman Jon Summers, who now splits time between the federal office and the campaign in Nevada.
“We brought Kelly on…at a time when we were ratcheting up our communications from the campaign,” says Reid campaign director Brandon Hall.
Steele has worked on numerous Democratic campaigns—for Senate candidate Bill Bradbury in 2002, for John Kerry in 2004, and for the team that helped Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) thump Mike McGavick in 2006. In Washington state, Steele developed a reputation as a bulldog, and a game changer.
Back in DC Reid’s allies were pleased by the minor shakeup. Summers boasted to Reid’s staff about Steele’s tenacity, and left no doubt about the role he’s meant to play. One staffer referred to him as a “bulldog.” Another as “cutthroat.”
Those terms have followed him around for years. A May 2008 Seattle Times profile focused on two telltale tactics: sharp rhetoric and indefatigably tracking his opponents.
That’s not necessarily the image Reid’s campaign wants to project.
When Goldy of the Washington state-based blog Horse’s Ass credited Steele, and his pugnacious style, with helping Reid turn things around (or at least begin to) Steele was not pleased.
“We have a huge and talented team of professionals,” Steele replied angrily, “and it’s unfair to call out any one member.”
But it’s hard to ignore the successes. In recent months, the campaign has turned local and national attention to the failings of the Republican field more effectively than ever, most notably with the chickengate fiasco, which was largely responsible for Lowden’s implosion.
Thanks to that story, Reid’s running against a tea partier—an opportunity Reid and the Democratic party relish. But even if Lowden had pulled it out in the final hours, her standing had fallen markedly and her lead over Reid had shrunk.
Now the Reid campaign is in a position it’s been awaiting for months: with a single adversary—one person to define and oppose—instead of three.
None of which is to say Reid has it easy. His approval ratings are deadly low for an incumbent, and it’s possible to imagine a weak opponent with an intense following besting him in November. But if Steele’s hiring is any indication, nobody understands that better than team Reid.