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Still, sources said Durbin’s efforts to restructure his Whip team may not be enough in the short term to change the storyline that emerged when Reid announced plans to assign Schumer another leadership role. Reid has since added to the portfolio of the No. 4 Democrat in leadership as well: he tapped Murray to reprise her role as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Murray also ran the DSCC during the 2002 cycle.
While Senators publicly rejected the notion that Durbin’s star has fallen, some privately acknowledged that he has been downbeat in recent weeks.
One Democratic Senator said Durbin has likely hit a ceiling on how far he can advance in caucus leadership, saying he appears to be too much of an ideologue to run the politically diverse Democratic Conference.
“He’s too far to the left in his own views ... to be leader,” this Senator said. Schumer, the Senator added, is harder to pin down because he’s more “pragmatic.”
But another Democratic Senator said Durbin is far from irrelevant and would provide a tough challenge to Schumer for Democratic leader should Reid step aside or retire.
“There’s no vacancy in leadership right now. But if and when there is one, it will still be a contest,” the Senator said. “I don’t expect Dick will just roll over and say, ‘Oh, it’s a fait accompli.’”
The Senator added that Schumer’s majority-building stints atop the DSCC in 2006 and 2008 — Democrats surprised most pundits when they retook the Senate in 2006 — would not necessarily be enough to carry the him to the top spot.
“Some of the luster of those two campaigns will wear off the farther you go forward,” the Senator said.
And several aides and Senators said Durbin still has plenty of cards to play if he chooses to do so.
The demand for more communication from party leaders to the rank and file will require “increased Member-to-Members communication on floor strategy,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. The aide added that as Majority Whip, Durbin still has “a clear mandate on floor operations.”
Additionally, Durbin, who urged then-Sen. Obama to run for president in 2008, still has a powerful connection to the White House that he can leverage. And Obama’s new chief of staff, Peter Rouse, served as Durbin’s chief of staff while Durbin was in the House.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse also said the media’s perception of Durbin is quite different from the one his colleagues hold of him. The Rhode Island Democrat noted that many Members consider Durbin their “go-to person” in leadership when they have a concern, making him a key player.
“Dick is a spectacularly respected strategist, one of the senior-most members of leadership and you know, Chuck got this DPC task, but it’s a burden. It’s not like he got given a headband of laurels to ride around with,” Whitehouse said.
Correction: Dec. 2, 2010
The article incorrectly stated that Peter Rouse served as Durbin's chief of staff while he was Whip in the House. Durbin did not serve as Whip in the House.