All Senate Democratic eyes will be on Nevada on Tuesday as Members anxiously wait to hear whether Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) ekes out a fifth term or falls to Republican Sharron Angle.
But don’t expect his would-be successors to immediately launch campaigns to shore up support for his leadership job. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) have learned from history that it’s best to stand down until it is absolutely clear that there’s a race to be had.
Democratic sources said neither Durbin nor Schumer — believed to have been angling to succeed Reid for months — will begin making calls to rank-and-file Democrats for support before a Reid defeat is officially called. And if the race is close enough for a recount, it’s a safe bet that both men will hold off scouring the caucus for votes until a final ruling is made or someone concedes, sources added.
Trying to take Reid’s job before he’s declared the loser would look unseemly, especially if he ends up pulling out a narrow win, as some pundits are predicting. And if Reid does win, sources said neither Durbin nor Schumer — nor any other Democrat — is likely to challenge him for the job, despite expectations that Senate Democrats could lose eight or more seats before the night is over.
But if Reid loses, recent history shows that potential successors who are too quick to act could find their odds plummet.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) learned that lesson the hard way in 2004 after then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) lost a close race to now-Sen. John Thune (R).
Democratic sources said Dodd and his staff began calling Senators to ask for votes before the race had been officially called for Thune. Even those who would have been natural supporters of Dodd were turned off, one Senate Democratic source noted. Dodd previously lost a race for Minority Leader to Daschle by one vote in 1994.
Though Dodd faced an uphill climb in 2004 against then-Minority Whip Reid, Dodd’s bid was essentially over before it began, sources said. The day after Daschle lost, Dodd told CNN, “I really decided that I can better serve my party and my state by staying out of the race.”
That day, Reid announced he had commitments from enough Senators to take over as Minority Leader.
Of course, Reid indicated in his book “The Good Fight” that if you want to be leader, you can’t wait too long to begin calling Members. He acknowledged that he began reaching out to the caucus before Daschle had conceded but after the race had been called for Thune.
“Tom Daschle was like a brother to me, I told them, but time was too short to hold a wake,” Reid wrote of his early morning effort on Nov. 3, 2004. “We had to get organized, and fast.” Daschle conceded that afternoon.
But just because Durbin and Schumer aren’t likely to be making calls until the results are in doesn’t mean they haven’t given Members plenty of material for evaluating their dedication to them and their fitness to lead.
Senators and aides have said Schumer is the favorite to win the position given his avid fundraising, two-cycle tour atop the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and transactional style. Schumer’s tenure at the DSCC helped usher in 15 new Senators and in 2006 delivered Democrats control of the Senate for the first time in 12 years. However, Durbin cannot be counted out, given his own fundraising prowess, messaging style and strong liberal credentials.
Though talk about the potential leadership contest died down over the summer, Democrats on Capitol Hill said Reid’s inability to pull ahead of Angle in the closing weeks of the campaign have reignited speculation that his two lieutenants’ furious campaigning for fellow Senators and Democratic candidates is a pre-election battle for the position.
As members of Democratic leadership, both Senators likely would have been conspicuous presences on the campaign trail this year anyway. But one knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide said, “There seems to be an increased urgency among those guys.”
Spokesmen for Schumer and Durbin declined to comment, as both men have maintained that Reid will win Tuesday and that they have done everything they can to make sure that happens. Schumer has maxed out to Reid with $10,000 in checks from his political action committee, and in recent months he has given $500,000 to the Nevada Democratic Party — making him the most generous of his Senate colleagues to Reid’s re-election efforts. Durbin has also tried to assist Reid, maxing out to the leader’s campaign and giving $10,000 to the Nevada Democratic Party along with hosting four fundraisers for Reid and traveling to Nevada twice to campaign with him.
Durbin and Schumer have also been active in almost every competitive Senate race this year.
Schumer has opted most often to give cash, giving more than $4 million to Democrats and the party this year. Schumer is facing only token opposition for a third term today. Durbin won re-election handily in 2008.
In addition to forking over nearly a half-million dollars to Democratic Senate campaign efforts, Durbin has hosted Chicago fundraisers for Democratic incumbents in Colorado, California, Wisconsin, Washington and New York and candidates in Illinois, Missouri, Delaware, Ohio, Indiana and Florida.
Those fundraisers also benefited the DSCC, which received a portion of the money raised. Candidates typically received more from the fundraisers than the DSCC, sources said.
One Senate Democratic source said Schumer has also been doling out campaign advice to most candidates in competitive races, talking to some Democrats two to three times a week.
“He’s in constant communication with the people who are running,” the source said.
And for years, Durbin and Schumer have been building up chits with their colleagues in the Senate.
While Schumer has what appears to be an obvious advantage with the Members he helped elect in 2006 and 2008, both Democrats have worked behind the scenes to help Members secure committee assignments, avoid tough votes, get a vote on a key amendment, and help with other arcane procedural or institutional wants and needs.
But as the Senate Democratic aide noted, the real contest won’t begin until all the votes are in: “The morning after will be an epic free-for-all.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.