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Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the leadership vote argument

By Felicia Sonmez

Democratic candidates this cycle have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from their party leaders, but West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin's (D) remarks over the weekend demonstrated just how far Democrats in competitive races are willing to go.

In an interview with Politics Daily, Manchin not only refused to say whether he'd support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) -- assuming that Reid wins re-election -- he also declined to back President Obama for a second term.

(It's worth noting that Manchin set the bar earlier this month for separating himself from his party with a TV ad in which he took aim -- literally -- at cap-and-trade legislation and decried "Obamacare.")

Manchin isn't alone. Mississippi Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor -- who previously told The Hill that he'd vote for Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) over Pelosi for Democratic leader -- took things one step further over the weekend, telling the Sun Herald newspaper that he voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president in 2008.

Taylor, a ten-term congressman in a district that voted 67 percent for McCain, is facing a tough challenge from state Rep. Steven Palazzo (R), who has tied Taylor to Pelosi and other national Democrats at every opportunity.

Both Taylor's and Manchin's comments highlight a larger trend in this cycle's races: Why has the "leadership vote" question been such a prominent one in 2010?

The reason for Republicans' intense focus on Democratic leaders may not be too hard discern: a recent poll conducted for The Hill newspaper showed that 61 percent of independents in 10 battleground districts viewed Democratic leaders as more left-leaning than they are, while only 16 percent said that Pelosi and Reid hold views similar to their own. The survey also showed that even 23 percent of likely Democratic voters viewed Pelosi and Reid as to their ideological left.

By contrast, only 38 percent of independents viewed House Minority Leader John Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as to the ideological right of them.

Moreover, Pelosi in particular is both well known and highly unpopular -- a dangerous combination -- among the electorate at large. A Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll released today showed that 56 percent of likely voters have an unfavorable view of Pelosi -- with 45 percent viewing her "strongly" unfavorably -- while only 26 percent view her favorably. Only eight percent had never heard of Pelosi. (Boehner, by contrast, is viewed favorably by 18 percent and unfavorably by 15 percent while the majority -- 54 percent -- have never heard of him.)

Another reason why the "leadership vote" argument works is that so many endangered Democrats this cycle are running in districts that voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) in the 2008 presidential race. Including Taylor's district, 48 Democratic-held districts were carried by McCain in. In 13 of those districts, Obama took less than 40 percent of the vote. The fact that Democrats won those districts even as Obama lost them, often overwhelmingly, makes Democratic candidates in those districts particularly vulnerable to any messaging that ties them to national leaders.

Given those numbers, it's a near-certainty that the final week of the campaign will be filled with Republican candidates asking their Democratic opponents whether they do -- or will -- support Pelosi or Reid for leader.

Whether or not it's been an effective line of attack will be apparent after Election Day.

By Felicia Sonmez  | October 25, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  House, Senate  
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Next: Afternoon Fix: Gene Taylor says he voted for John McCain in 2008; Michael Bennet loans himself $500,000

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