By Alexander Bolton and Russell Berman - 11/02/10 10:00 AM EDT
Election Day could bring a swift end to the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and spark power struggles in both chambers to replace them.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, has left little doubt among Democratic aides and lobbyists that he wants to become the Senate Democratic leader if Reid (Nev.) loses reelection.
But to succeed Reid, Schumer would have to leapfrog the second-ranking Democratic leader, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who happens to be his housemate on Capitol Hill.
In the House, a Democratic loss — which most political analysts now expect — would end Pelosi’s (Calif.) brief but historic Speakership. Many aides also expect her to step down as party leader instead of serving as minority leader.
Pelosi’s exit would open the door for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who would stand as the heavy favorite for House Democratic leader.
While aides say Rep. John Larson (Conn.), currently the Democratic Caucus chairman, is mulling a challenge to Hoyer, the more unpredictable races could be for lower-ranking leadership posts, where a crop of younger lawmakers could jockey for influence.
Senate: A possible Schumer-Durbin battle
Democrats expect to retain control of the Senate, and Reid does not face a threat from within the Democratic Conference if he wins reelection. But recent polls show him trailing by a few points to conservative Republican challenger Sharron Angle.
Senate aides, party strategists and lobbyists have speculated for months about a possible battle between Durbin and Schumer to replace Reid.
Both lawmakers have been careful not to overtly campaign for Reid’s position. They and their aides have repeatedly expressed support for Reid and refused to discuss the possibility of his defeat.
Some Senate Democrats were privately critical of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in 2004 when he began making calls about a possible bid for Democratic leader even before Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) lost his reelection race.
Many political observers consider Schumer a favorite in a hypothetical race because of his fundraising power and his successful stint as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
In that role, Schumer helped Democrats pick up six Senate seats in 2006 and another eight in 2008, bringing them within one vote of a supermajority. Schumer helped a total of 17 Democrats win in those two cycles, giving him a broad base of support within the conference.
“There’s nobody in the caucus who has done more to elect Democrats than Chuck Schumer over the last six years,” said Izzy Klein, a former Schumer aide. “He has made a steady and growing commitment to help his colleagues. That’s from a press, political and fundraising standpoint. He’s been doing it all.”
Schumer has made more than $4 million in contributions from his personal campaign accounts to help Democratic candidates and state parties. He recently gave $500,000 to the Nevada State Democratic Party, in addition to $3 million to the DSCC.
Durbin has a more modest style than Schumer, but allies say he would be a better majority leader.
“Harry Reid doesn’t lose. But if Harry Reid were to lose, Dick Durbin is a steady hand and a complete bulldog and a trusted adviser to the White House,” said Jimmy Williams, a former aide to Durbin who also worked for Schumer. “In my opinion, Durbin would make a fantastic majority leader of the U.S. Senate.”
Durbin, who has served as Democratic whip since the end of 2004, has developed a reputation as a master of Senate procedure. He could draw on that experience to protect vulnerable Democrats from politically difficult votes.
Durbin has also been active on the campaign trail, hosting nearly a dozen events for Senate Democratic candidates and the DSCC in Chicago this year. He has doled out about $400,000 to Senate candidates and the state parties through his leadership political action committee, Prairie PAC, and has given about $460,000 to the DSCC. (Schumer has given $385,000 from his leadership PAC, Impact, to help Senate and House Democratic candidates this cycle.)
The Senate Democratic leader for the 112th Congress will pick the next DSCC chairman, the next Democratic Policy Committee chairman and the next vice chairman of the Democratic Conference. The conference secretary, a post now held by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), is elected; she is facing her own tough reelection race and is expected to remain in that role.
DSCC Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is expected to step down from his post, and Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) will retire at the end of the year.
If Schumer lost the race for leader, he could run for whip. No Democrat has publicly expressed an interest in replacing Durbin.
House: All eyes on Pelosi
In the House, Pelosi’s position has become more tenuous in recent weeks. On one side are increasing predictions of a GOP landslide that would wipe out her majority, while on the other are a group of conservative Democrats who have said they would oppose her for Speaker, jeopardizing her chances for another term even if Democrats keep the House.
Regardless of the outcome, all eyes will be on Pelosi once the House results are known. “Everyone will be waiting to see what the Speaker does,” said a Democratic aide to a lawmaker looking to move up in the leadership ranks.
A Democratic minority would squeeze out at least one current member of the leadership team — a possibility that some aides say explains a report last week that Larson might challenge Hoyer for the top post. With Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) seen as unlikely to face a serious challenge for whip, Larson, a close ally of Pelosi, had been considered the most vulnerable member of the leadership team.
Larson allies downplay the possibility of a bid for party leader, saying he had merely been encouraged to run by other lawmakers. “Larson is focused on running for caucus chairman,” an aide to the six-term Democrat said.
Aides to other members speculated that Larson could be looking to demonstrate his independence from Pelosi, with whom he’s long been closely associated.
While Democratic aides hold out the possibility of a complete leadership shakeup in the aftermath of a devastating defeat, few expect a serious challenge to Hoyer, who has solidified his base of support by raising millions for the party and campaigning for vulnerable members.
Lawmakers may want “to keep the bloodletting to a minimum,” said one aide to a member who had supported Larson for caucus chairman but who would back Hoyer for party leader. Although liberals are expected to hold greater sway if dozens of Blue Dogs lose, the aide said ideology may not be the deciding factor. “Ideology takes a backseat to some of the party and caucus issues that come out of these elections,” the aide said.
Regardless of whether Larson challenges Hoyer, the battle for his post could be a free-for-all. Reps. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Diana DeGette (Colo.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) are among those likely to be in the mix, and others could jump in.