Drumbeat grows for Schumer at DSCC as colleagues shun job

Senate Democrats facing tough reelections in 2012 want Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to return as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), according to current and former Senate aides.

Democratic aides and strategists clamoring for Schumer say the job is too critical to leave to an untested senator.

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“This is the biggest cycle ever — I don’t know why [Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] would put a mediocre person in the role,” said a Democratic strategist close to one of the incumbents facing a tough reelection.

“If there’s not somebody who’s powerful or can handle this thing, it’s not going to be helpful,” said the Democratic source. “If we have a terrible election, we’re at 44 or 43 seats. Beyond taking the Senate back, I can’t imagine a more important cycle.”

Colleagues talked to Schumer before the election about returning to the DSCC, and he rebuffed the idea.

On Thursday, his spokesman Brian Fallon declined to comment.

Democrats must defend 21 seats in 2012 in what they expect to be a hostile political environment until the economy shows stronger signs of improvement. (The number climbs to 23, counting Sens. Bernie Sanders, Vt., and Joe Lieberman, Conn., Independents who caucus with the Democrats.)

Republicans, by contrast, have to defend only 10 seats. Other than Sen. Scott Brown (R) in Massachusetts, there are few promising pickup opportunities.

DSCC Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) is stepping down from the post to run for his own reelection in two years, leaving it up to Reid to appoint a successor.

Senate Democratic aides say the Democratic senators have confidence that, if anyone can save their majority in 2012, Schumer can.

“That’s an excellent idea,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It’s great.”

Democrats who want Schumer back at the helm argue that the expectations for Democratic success in the coming cycle are low and his colleagues would be very grateful.

“No one can raise the type of money that Schumer has done,” said a consultant who worked for a Democratic senator facing a tough reelection campaign.

“If Schumer steps up and does it, he is virtually guaranteed that he will be the next leader of the Democratic Senate,” said the consultant. “Expectations are really low; if we get waxed it’s not his fault. He can raise $100 million and he’ll be a hero.”

Schumer also showed a knack for persuading Democratic lawmakers from conservative-leaning states to postpone their retirements. As soon as he took over the DSCC in 2004, he focused on keeping those on-the-fence incumbents in Congress.

Senate Democrats were hurt this year by the retirements of Byron Dorgan and Evan Bayh, who could have given Republicans a tough fight in North Dakota and Indiana, respectively. Democrats lost both seats.

Some Democrats also point out there’s not an obvious outlet for Schumer’s famous energy and ambition. Reid narrowly won reelection and is expected to continue serving as majority leader, while Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) has the job of Democratic whip locked down.

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” said the senior Democratic aide.

Schumer is known as a dealmaker on the Finance Committee, but Senate Republicans show few signs they are ready to compromise with Democrats anytime soon.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday that voters had given the GOP “clear marching orders.” He said the Republicans’ “primary legislative goals” are “to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government.”

Democratic insiders saw Schumer as the favorite to become majority leader if Reid lost his race against Sharron Angle.

His popularity within the Senate Democratic Conference hit an all-time high after the 2008 election cycle, when he served his second stint as DSCC chairman. During Schumer’s two terms in that role, Senate Democrats picked up 14 Senate seats.

But the glow of that accomplishment fades a little more with each passing year in a town where the perennial question is “What have you done for me lately?”

The drumbeat for Schumer’s return to the DSCC has grown louder as other possible candidates have withdrawn their names from consideration.

Earlier this fall, Senate Democrats hoped that Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), who has a national profile and fundraising base because of his 2008 presidential ambitions, would take the job.

But Warner has ruled out the possibility.

“It’s not happening,” said Luke Albee, Warner’s chief of staff.

Many rising stars, such as Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), are not eligible because they face reelection in 2012.

Senior Democrats such as Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and John Kerry (Mass.) want to devote their time and attention to the committees they chair.

Other Democratic senators whose names have been floated as candidates for the job have also said no.

“Sen. Tom Udall [N.M.] is not interested in the position,” said his spokeswoman, Marissa Padilla.

Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) is also passing.

“I’m focused right now on Colorado and getting back to work on Coloradans’ priorities, especially creating jobs and getting our national debt under control,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) is not interested in the job either, according to his spokesman.

Other possibilities are Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), who is respected for his political acumen and fundraising ability, and Kay Hagan (N.C.).

Begich, however, has a young son, and the time he would need to spend recruiting candidates and raising tens of millions of dollars for the DSCC would take away from time with family.

“Family is very important to him,” said spokeswoman Julie Hasquet.

A spokeswoman for Hagan said late Thursday that her boss "is not interested in being DSCC chairman."

Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst at The Cook Political Report, said there is “a pretty short list” of possible candidates to head the DSCC.

“When you go through the entire caucus, there just aren’t that many people available to serve as chairman,” she said.

Duffy said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who chaired the committee from 2001 to 2003, might be a good fit for the job again, as long as she eventually wins her Senate reelection race. The race has yet to be called.

But Murray’s record isn’t Schumer’s.

With Murray at the helm, Senate Democrats lost a net of two seats in 2002, President George W. Bush’s first midterm election.


J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this report.