PHILADELPHIA – The fall election could make Sen. Charles E. Schumer the nation’s most powerful senator, and here at the Democratic National Convention, it’s clear that the thought has more than crossed his mind.
Speaking before the New York delegation Wednesday morning, he talked about the different approach that the Senate would take on trade issues “should I become majority leader.” In the prepared remarks he delivered to the entire convention the night before, he included six entire paragraphs about what would happen if Democrats win back the Senate majority.
In other words, the stakes for Schumer – and his constituents – in this election are far higher than they typically would be for a senator running for his fourth term.
Senate Democrats already have informally anointed Schumer as the next leader, and if the party can win at least four additional seats from the Republicans this fall, Schumer would lead the Senate majority.
Other lawmakers say that could have huge and positive consequences for his constituents, and Schumer agrees – which is why he has long been working behind the scenes to maximize the Democrats’ chances this fall.
To hear Schumer tell it, though, the issues at hand are far bigger than him, or his constituents.
“With Hillary Clinton as president and a strong Senate majority by her side, we’ll keep the American dream alive for a new generation,” he told the delegates.
Together, he said, Clinton and a Senate majority would install Supreme Court justices who would protect women’s rights and voting rights. They would raise the minimum wage and demand equal pay for women. They would pass immigration reform and legislation lowering college costs and make a huge new investment in infrastructure.
That last point is particularly exciting to Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has fought for years for a big boost in funding for roads and bridges.
But Schumer’s influence, as Senate leader, would to extend far beyond any one infrastructure bill, Higgins said. As the most powerful senator, he would be able to influence policy in all sorts of ways – and to hear Higgins tell it, it looks as if New York’s senior senator is already doing that.
Higgins said he and Schumer were able to recently strike a deal to keep most KeyBank jobs in Western New York just because bank officials respected how much power Schumer has and could wield in the future.
“We didn’t have a hammer, other than perceived power,” Higgins said. “And political power is always about perception.”
Schumer would be the first Senate majority leader ever to hail from the Empire State, and if he ascends to that new role, “it’s obviously good for New York,” Higgins said.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz couldn’t agree more.
Noting that in years past, Schumer has successfully fought battles on the county’s behalf before the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Economic Development Administration, Poloncarz said: “We would still be fighting those battles without him. And with him as majority leader, we wouldn’t even have to fight those battles.”
But what are the odds that the Democrats will pick up the four or five seats that Schumer needs to take charge? According to the Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report, the odds are fairly good. Three Republican-held Senate seats are already at least tilting toward the Democrats, and three more are toss-ups.
If Clinton wins the presidency, Democrats would have to win only four seats to gain control, because that would produce a 50-50 split in the Senate where the new Democratic vice president, Tim Kaine, could vote to break ties. If Republican Donald Trump wins the presidency, Democrats would have to win five Senate seats to gain control.
Conventional wisdom, as well as Schumer’s, agree: The fate of the Senate depends largely on whether Clinton wins, and by how much.
“The better she does, the better we’ll do,” Schumer said, adding that Democrats have “a number of good targets” this fall.
Republican senators in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida – all elected in the GOP wave of 2010 – now face strong Democratic challengers. In the meantime, strong Democratic candidates are running, too, in open seats in Nevada and Indiana.
But Republicans, of course, are not going down quietly. Andrea Bozek, a Williamsville native who now serves as communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Senate Republicans are treating each Senate race as a series of hyperlocalized races where candidates are stressing the issues that matter the most to voters in each individual metro area.
“While Democrats go around proclaiming the future, we’re executing a strategy to hold the majority and keep Mitch McConnell as majority leader,” she said of the Kentucky senator.
The Senate Leadership Fund – a new super PAC enriched largely by GOP donors who have shunned Trump’s presidential campaign – has already reserved $40 million in television time in competitive races this fall.
“Democrats were given a dream map this cycle where anything less than winning back the Senate would be an embarrassing nightmare for Chuck Schumer,” said Ian Prior, spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund. “It now looks like that nightmare may become reality. Republican incumbents are running better campaigns across the board, and Schumer’s poor recruits in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania may well doom his single-minded ambition to be majority leader.”
Democrats, though, are optimistic. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said she foresees a new Democratic Senate tackling the same host of issues that Schumer listed and actually getting legislation passed, thanks in part to a new Democratic leader.
“I think Chuck Schumer has a unique set of skills,” she said. “He’s committed to policy, and he’s also a great political strategist.”
In fact, Schumer’s political strategizing is one of the key reasons why so many Democrats will run competitive Senate races. In his current position as chairman of the Democratic Policy & Communications Center, Schumer has persuaded many of his colleagues to emulate him – to devote substantial time not just to fundraising, but also to courting the media through weekly conference calls, weekend news conferences and the like.
What’s more, colleagues say that over the years, he has recruited several strong Democratic challengers and persuaded some Democratic senators to delay retirement.
Most notably, Stabenow said, Schumer recently lobbied former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana to run for the seat that he retired from in 2010 – a move that instantly made the Indiana seat much more competitive for Democrats.
“He was the driving personal force behind getting Evan Bayh to reconsider,” Stabenow said. “He was very tenacious. It involved a lot of conversations, a lot of dinners.”
When asked about his efforts to recruit strong Senate candidates for the Democrats, Schumer was coy.
“I do that from time to time,” he said with a smile.
Then again, Schumer’s opponent in his November re-election campaign, Manhattan attorney Wendy E. Long, argues that Schumer’s track record in the Senate is grounds for replacing him.
“Chuck Schumer is the poster child for the corrupt establishment,” she said at the Republican National Convention last week, contending that Schumer takes too much money from Wall Street and is too close to big business.
A Quinnipiac University poll recently found, though, that Schumer is leading Long by a whopping 32 percentage points. In other words, it now looks highly likely that he will return to the Senate, where Stabenow described him as a bipartisan force with friends in both parties and a habit of taking up whatever issue might matter to his constituents, such as New York agriculture, noting that “he’s always reminding me about maple syrup and apples.”