Reid: "I'm in Hog Heaven"

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At 1:45 a.m. Wednesday, Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, his wife, Landra, and his staff waited for results in a suite on the 11th floor of the Hyatt Regency, steps from the Capitol. With Tennessee going to Republican Bob Corker earlier in the evening and three other close Senate seats in Democratic hands, Democrats needed wins in all three remaining races to take control of the Senate and make Reid its majority leader.

Reid's staffers were spread out over the beige chairs and tables of the main room amid laptops, old plates of nachos and empty soda cans. And they were looking to pick a fight. State auditor Claire McCaskill was leading in Missouri, Jim Webb was ahead in Virginia and Jon Tester was leading in early results from Montana. One aide pointed at the television and said, "We're at 50!" — meaning that Democrats were in control of all but one of the seats they needed, with Tester's race too early to call. Another said, "I think, as a messaging point, we should go hard and say we're at 51. If they were up a couple of thousand votes, that's what they'd do. Remember what they did to us in 2000?"

Another agreed. "We are at 51 right now."

Reid, for his part, wanted none of that message. He was in a bedroom off the main room, drinking bottled water and talking to Landra. I asked him whether, with rumors that Missouri was about to be called for McCaskill, he thought he was going to win it all. He said, "Oh, no, no. You have to understand, I'm not a guy that is ever very optimistic." He turned to Landra: "Fair statement, my wife?"

She laughed. "You see, that way I'm not disappointed," he said.

Reid's rise to leadership, and what may be his victory this week, have been built on long years of legislative wrestling and a tough, careful approach to politics. But Reid's Eeyore exterior seems utterly out of place amid the raucous scene of an Election Night celebration. Earlier in the evening, for example, he had ascended the stage in front of hundreds of cheering supporters in a basement ballroom of the hotel as the first positive results were coming in. After less than a minute of earnest but cautious enthusiasm, he'd lost the crowd. Conversation rumbled to life throughout the room, quickly silenced by "shushing" in the crowd. Reid found an ending to his speech and left the stage, unoffended, to roaring applause.

Up in the hotel bedroom hours later, he wasn't done fretting. He launched into the long list of worries that had been eating at him during the previous 72 hours. "My concern, coming into this, I was so worried about New Jersey. So worried about Maryland. So worried about Rhode Island." And to hear him tell it, even those worries were progress. "Two years ago my goal was to hang onto 45 seats. Bush had just won again. My friend Tom Daschle had just lost. We'd lost Senate races around the country. So my concern at that time was, can we hang onto the two Nelsons, Nebraska and Florida and North Dakota with Conrad. But tonight there hasn't been a single word about any one of those seats. So I'm in hog heaven! I've picked up three seats! Nobody thought two years ago we could do that." Brightening, he indulged in a moment of cautious optimism. "I certainly hope we get to 49, 50, 51. But regardless of what happens, I'm the Democratic leader."

At this point, a staffer stepped in and said, "Senator, MSNBC has McCaskill ready to speak." Before the words were out of her mouth, Reid had jumped up from the edge of the bed and made his way to the TV in the main room. "Is it good news?" He asked. A staffer said, "Yes." And Reid melted. McCaskill thanked the crowd and said, "The great state of Missouri has spoken." Reid said, "Oh, beautiful, wonderful." McCaskill said, "Tonight, we have heard the voice of Missourians, and they have said, 'We want change.'" Reid stepped forward and gingerly kissed the TV. The room burst out laughing.

Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chair Chuck Schumer stormed into the room with a huge, goofy grin on his face. "They declared for McCaskill!" Turning to the TV, his face got even goofier. "Hey there she is! Oh, I love her. Oh man!" he said. Reid shouted, "49!" and the two men hugged. Reid turned back to the TV, where an image of McCaskill's opponent, incumbent Jim Talent, was being broadcast. Reid blew a huge raspberry.

The elation abated quickly enough. While McCaskill in Missouri had been declaring victory, so had Webb in Virginia. But with a lead of less than 1 percent, a recount was guaranteed by state law. And Montana was tightening. Schumer established a beachhead in another bedroom off the main room, grabbing a cell phone and kicking off his black loafers. First he made a call to get guidance on what a recount in Virginia would involve. Then he called aides in Montana.

On Virginia, at least, Reid was willing to be optimistic, saying that with the 8,000-12,000 vote lead Webb had at that point, even with a recount, he would hold the state. But that left Montana. Schumer hung up the cell phone and shouted to Reid who had moved to the main room. "Hey Harry?" "Yes," Reid said coming back in. "Montana is getting tighter." Word of machine malfunctions in one county was coming in, and two other counties' tallies were still outstanding. The two men watched the count together. At 3:10 a.m., with Montana and Virginia still undecided, Reid went home to go to sleep.