Just a few weeks ago, Sen. Patty Murray was an endangered incumbent with a 50-50 shot to win re-election. But on Tuesday, the Washington state lawmaker emerged a political powerhouse as the newly anointed chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
By accepting the pleas of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to take a job that no one else wanted in what is bound to be a challenging 2012 election cycle, Murray, who also serves as Conference Secretary, appears to be positioning herself for more ambitious moves up the party leadership ladder.
“I think a lot of people sometimes make the mistake of underestimating Patty Murray,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a top electoral target for Republicans in 2012. “I think it’s inspiring she’s willing to take it on.”
Reid struggled over the past several weeks to find a more junior Senator from the class of 2008 for the DSCC job. But many Democrats said the decision to finally ask Murray appeared an inspired choice, given the need for a strong, experienced chairwoman during a cycle in which the DSCC will be fighting to retain 23 seats — two of them held by Democratic-leaning independents. Murray previously proved her fundraising skill atop the campaign arm in the 2002 cycle.
“If there was any cycle where we needed a seasoned hand at the rudder, it’s this one,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
The White House this week offered similar support for Murray, suggesting she would be a better fundraiser than several of the candidates who turned Reid down since the Democrats lost six seats on election night.
And although Murray will get tremendous credit with her colleagues for being somewhat of a sacrificial lamb in taking the job, the position actually comes with a number of perks for the quietly ambitious lawmaker.
“I don’t see a downside for her,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
Though talk in recent days centered on whether Murray might also be in a position to take over the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Democratic aides said Murray received no specific “quid pro quo” for her decision to take over the DSCC.
However, the senior Senate Democratic aide said that Murray’s decision to take the job would likely empower her to move her own priorities more quickly and that “she will probably use it as she goes forward.”
The DSCC chairmanship will give Murray a chance to shore up her relationships with the caucus, particularly with the Members she’ll be helping to re-elect, just as Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) did when he was chairman in the 2006 and 2008 cycles.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Schumer have long been expected to run against each other to replace Reid as leader, should a vacancy occur. Because neither Schumer nor Durbin would likely want to serve as the other’s Whip, Murray is seen as the most likely contender to be the next No. 2 Democratic leader.
Reid hand-picked Murray for the leadership post in 2007, and she drew most of her power from Reid’s approval. However, sources acknowledged that she does still need to build an independent network of influence on her own. She’s expected to put on her own stamp as she takes over the campaign committee, with new hires at prominent positions likely in the coming year.
One Democratic Senator said Murray definitely stands to increase her influence among the 23 Members whom she’ll be helping to re-elect.
“You’re in the same foxhole at the same time,” the Senator said of the closeness between candidates and the DSCC chairman.
This Senator and aides noted that Murray’s recent experience in beating back a conservative tea-party-backed challenge “definitely prepares her for helping” Democrats up in 2012, given she can provide real-world advice for how to overcome tougher-than-normal contests in a presidential cycle that, similar to 2010, may not be friendly to Democratic incumbents. Murray beat Dino Rossi by more than 46,000 votes in a race that at several points this fall had seemed to favor the Republican.
There are 33 seats on the Nov. 6, 2012, ballot. Roll Call Politics has rated seven of those races as Tossups. Several Democrats, including Sen. Maria Cantwell in Murray’s home state, find themselves in the uncomfortable Leans Democratic category.
Sources said Murray is not necessarily angling at this time for any specific future power grabs but acknowledged that she is fully aware of the opportunities that taking the DSCC chairmanship could bring down the line.
An upbeat Murray indicated Tuesday that she didn’t take the job out of any personal desire to enhance her stature.
“This isn’t about me,” Murray said. “This is about making sure that we have an agenda in this country that really is right for our country today, that we get our economy moving again and that everyday families get the security they need, and I know that the best way to do that is to have a strong Democratic majority here.”
She added: “Everybody who knows me knows that I don’t make choices because they might be easy or hard. I do them because I feel it’s the right thing. This is right thing.”
Despite her own personal ambitions, Murray was encouraged by Reid, top White House aides and a slew of her own Democratic colleagues to take the job. Some suggested her longtime focus on the middle class, families, veterans and women’s issues made her an attractive candidate to lead the DSCC.
“From the time she ran as a mom in tennis shoes, she really can relate to what’s going on with American families today,” said Stephanie Shriock, executive director of the pro-Democratic and pro-abortion-rights EMILY’s List. “And that’s an opportunity to restart the conversation with women voters, which is particularly important next year when we’ve got six Senate Democratic women up next cycle.”
Additionally, Murray’s role as a cardinal on the Appropriations Committee and her ties to the business community make her an able fundraiser in a year when Democrats will have to compete for dollars with President Barack Obama, who will be raising money for his own re-election bid. In fact, part of Murray’s fundraising prowess comes from her ability to get lobbyists to bundle contributions for her, a skill that will come in handy atop the DSCC.
When she ran the committee in 2001 and 2002, she helped raise more than $140 million in both hard and soft money for the committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Before Murray agreed to take the job, several other Democratic colleagues declined to replace outgoing DSCC Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), citing the workload and tough political climate for Democrats. Many of them did not want to have the stamp of “Democratic leader” or “establishment” on their records as they moved forward in their careers. Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Al Franken (Minn.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Schumer each turned Reid down when asked to take the job.
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.