Durbin Vs. Schumer: DSCC Gig Bred Loyalty

Posted November 2, 2009 at 3:58pm

First of two parts

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is defeated in November 2010, we will likely see a battle to succeed him between Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee head and current Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.). While it is tough to forecast the political landscape of the future, a Durbin-Schumer pairing would be a fascinating clash between two powerful leaders. 

The Senate is a place where power is determined by seniority, and as such, Whip Durbin should be a shoo-in to replace Reid. However, as a result of caucus dynamics and Schumer’s strength, the New York Senator would be surprisingly well-positioned to win.

Schumer is well-respected by his colleagues both for his intelligence in policymaking and his political acumen. Legislatively, he is authoritative on a plethora of disparate issues and a master of constituent-level services — a rare combination in a body of contented incumbents. Schumer is also one of his party’s wisest strategists today, a reputation earned as chairman of the DSCC during the 2006 and 2008 cycles, in which Democrats captured 14 new seats and knocked off a stunning 11 GOP incumbents. Schumer played as large a role as anyone in the victories, as he helped raise astounding sums of money, actively recruited strong nominees and navigated them through their rough campaigns. Schumer’s leadership position and the political chits he has collected make him uniquely positioned to make a run for Majority Leader.

Schumer’s Freshman Base

Members do not like to reveal how they will side in any internal matter, and with a contest between two well-liked colleagues, Senators will be hiding under their desks. Outside of Senators themselves, reading how good individual relationships are between Members is tricky and is often based on vague statements or actions. Many factors may be unknown, and lingering resentments can be hidden.

Nonetheless, we can glean a lot about a potential race, and Schumer’s first base of support is obvious: Senators that he helped elect in the 2006 and 2008 cycles. During his time at the DSCC, Schumer helped recruit and ultimately elect almost one-third of the caucus that will likely be in place after the 2010 midterms.

But his standing with new Members goes beyond mere familiarity. In his position, he acted as their best friend, shrewdest adviser, most brutal critic and emotional masseuse as they went through the ups and downs of a long campaign, forming a bond with them before they even got to Washington, D.C.

This does not mean that all of them would back Schumer against Durbin, but it is fair to say that many of them will be predisposed to back Schumer because of their close ties to him dating back to their campaigns. This base is not insignificant.

Temperament Will Be Determinative

A look at Durbin’s and Schumer’s National Journal liberal-conservative scores demonstrates that, on the whole, both men have similar left-leaning records, with Schumer more centrist on economic and foreign affairs issues over his career.

But really, the race will be determined not by policy positions but rather by personal relationships, past financial contributions, seniority, effectiveness and temperament. Members do not base decisions solely on policy issues, much in the same way that many voters vote for candidates for reasons besides policy agreements and disagreements.

One of Durbin’s strongest arguments is that, as Whip, he is next in line for the leader job. This should resonate with older Senators who possess greater seniority and thus may feel threatened by allowing Schumer to move ahead of the Whip. Durbin could also point to their personal differences as a means of exploiting any latent fears of Schumer’s style.

While more liberal, Durbin is earnest and subdued. Schumer is louder and more partisan, and he can be grating with his thick Brooklyn accent and a penchant for self-promotion. Schumer’s challenge may unsettle senior Members who feel protected by the order of seniority. Chairmen might also be nervous about the prospect of a hands-on Majority Leader breathing down their necks to pass legislation while they would prefer a slower pace. Durbin could represent himself as a gentler touch.

Ultimately, though, this would be a losing argument, at least with younger Senators. Despite Schumer’s brashness, it is impossible to question his effectiveness given his success at the DSCC, as well as his record of legislative advocacy. Furthermore, in the immediate aftermath of the Majority Leader’s defeat, it might not be Durbin’s best strategy to package himself as the low-key choice when memories of Harry Reid will still be fresh.

 

Reid Will Affect the Race

Consider the timing: The race will come right after the midterm elections, and many Senators will be champing at the bit to install a more hard-charging, aggressive leader who challenges the glacial pace many came to expect under Reid.

This focus on temperament would benefit Schumer as he could make the case that his forceful manner will represent a change in direction in both style and substance. And while it may be counterintuitive to assign a weaker position to the more liberal candidate in the race, consider that the past two Democratic leaders were not exactly leftists.

In the next column, we conclude by examining President Barack Obama’s potential impact on a leadership contest, how Durbin’s and Schumer’s past political action committee donations could bolster their candidacies, and what the whip count of the Democratic Conference might look like.

Mark Greenbaum is an attorney in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at markgreenbaum@gmail.com.