WASHINGTON – Sen. Charles E. Schumer emerged Friday as a near-certainty to become the Senate’s next Democratic leader, winning endorsements from outgoing Minority Leader Harry Reid and Schumer’s most likely rival as well as commitments from many colleagues who owe the New York senator in part for their election victories.
A source close to Schumer confirmed late Friday that the Brooklyn native intends to run for Democratic leader. The source said that at Reid’s urging, Schumer had begun calling his Democratic colleagues, and by Friday afternoon had won commitments from “the overwhelming majority of the caucus.”
Reid’s surprise retirement announcement early Friday opened a frantic day of politicking regarding a post that’s not scheduled to open until January 2017. But Senate sources said it’s a post that Schumer likely won years ago through the IOUs he gathered from colleagues as the Senate Democrats’ top campaign guru.
Schumer, a senator since 1999, would become the first New Yorker ever to hold a political party’s top Senate spot in the century that the party leader position has existed. And whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate or Democrats recapture control in the 2016 election, Schumer promises to take a much different, much more media-savvy tone to the job than did the pugnacious Reid.
Reid, of Nevada, announced he will end a 30-year Senate career at the end of 2016 in an early-morning video – and then trumped his retirement message in a series of interviews in which he endorsed Schumer.
“I think Schumer should be able to succeed me,” Reid told the Washington Post.
“Schumer, in 22 months , if he plays his cards right, should be able to do it,” Reid told the Los Angeles Times. “I told him if you need my help, you got it.”
For his part, Schumer praised Reid in a statement in which he acknowledged the support he was building for the party leadership position.
“I thank Harry Reid for his friendship, counsel and steadfast leadership of our caucus over the last 10 years, and I look forward to continuing to work right alongside him for the remainder of this Congress. I am honored and humbled to have the support of so many of my colleagues and look forward to our Senate Democratic Caucus continuing to fight for the middle class,” Schumer said.
Reid’s retirement was at one point expected to prompt a succession battle between Schumer, the party’s third-ranking Senate leader, and Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who as whip stands second in the party hierarchy.
But that possibility evaporated by the middle of Friday afternoon, when Durbin – who until recently was Schumer’s roommate in a notoriously untidy Capitol Hill townhouse – told the Washington Post that he endorsed Schumer during a Friday morning conversation on the Senate floor.
Durbin told Schumer: “I think you’ve earned this,” the Post reported.
Meantime, Senate sources said that another possible candidate for the top leadership job, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State, was focusing instead on a possible challenge to Durbin in a race for party whip.
That left Schumer in a commanding position to hold a top legislative job once held by Senate legends such as Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and, on the Republican side, Bob Dole of Kansas.
Schumer didn’t get there by accident.
Senate sources said Schumer’s ascent – and his leapfrogging of Durbin in the party pecking order – started with his service as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2005 through 2008.
Schumer turned the DSCC into a fundraising and messaging powerhouse that helped Democrats win back control of the Senate in 2006.
What’s more, the campaign post put Schumer in the position to raise money for and advise the classes of incoming Democratic senators elected in 2006 and 2008, winning chits all along the way.
And while Schumer technically stepped away from the campaign job in 2009, “it’s as if he never left,” said one source with intimate knowledge of Democratic Senate politics.
Even today, Schumer continues to raise money for and provide advice to Democratic Senate candidates: in fact, a source close to one of the Democrats running for an open Senate seat in 2016 said Friday that Schumer is already in regular contact with that candidate.
Sources said that up-close-and-personal approach with his colleagues has won Schumer deep reserves of support, especially among the 26 Democrats elected to the Senate since 2006, who now constitute a majority of the 46 senators who caucus with the Democrats.
Schumer now serves as the party’s policy and communications chair and in that post he’s essentially been urging his Democratic colleagues to be more like him.
As a result, more of them are committing to visit every county in their state every year, as Schumer has done in New York since 1999. In addition, Schumer has urged his colleagues to get more aggressive in taking their message to the media – often through the same sort of statewide conference calls that Schumer holds with reporters almost every Wednesday.
On the messaging front, Schumer has been pushing Democrats to focus on issues that matter the most to the middle class – but he’s also keenly sensitive to the needs of individual senators and individual states. Respecting his political skills, some senators even go to Schumer for advice before casting particularly difficult votes, one source said.
Given that history, Senate aides said Schumer can be expected to push the Democrats’ message even further as party leader. Whereas Reid mostly focused on managing the Senate and its legislation rather than messaging, Schumer – who has never been known to be shy around television cameras and print reporters – will likely put a stronger focus on getting Senate Democrats to speak as a unified voice backing the middle class.
Despite the rush toward Schumer’s candidacy, few Democratic senators publicly endorsed him Friday, instead focusing their comments on the retiring Reid.
But Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was one exception. “Nobody fights harder for the middle class than Sen. Schumer,” she said. “He has been a tremendous partner to work with and would be an outstanding majority leader. I would be honored to have the opportunity to support him.”
It’s unclear, though, whether Schumer will be majority leader or minority leader. Political prognosticators say control of the Senate will likely be up for grabs again in 2016.
One thing that’s unlikely to be up for grabs, though, is Schumer’s own seat.
Schumer is up for re-election, and all indications are that he is well positioned for a fourth term. Long one of the Senate’s premier fundraisers, Schumer had $13.4 million in campaign funds on hand as of the end of 2014.
Both the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report – the most prominent political prognosticators in Washington – rank Schumer as a safe bet for re-election in 2016.