Schumer: We can gain Senate seats

Sen. Charles Schumer says the political landscape has shifted dramatically from the 2010 election and predicts that Senate Democrats will hold their majority and might even expand it next year.

In an interview with The Hill, Schumer (D-N.Y.) brushed off suggestions that President Obama will hurt the chances of congressional Democrats in the 2012 elections. He said Obama’s approval ratings are on the rise, Democrats have the upper hand on the economy and Republican rhetoric on reducing government and the deficit is not striking the chord that it did during the midterms.

“I think we’re very, very likely to keep the Senate and I think there’s a darn good chance we stay the same or pick up seats,” Schumer said.

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Democrats now have a 53-47 advantage in the upper chamber, but have been hit with retirements in red and purple states. They also must defend 23 seats next year while Republicans are defending only 10. Independent political handicappers say the GOP has a better than 50-50 shot at grabbing control of the Senate.

Schumer, who headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) during historic Democratic gains from 2005 to 2008, disagrees.

The ailing economy, Schumer contends, will hurt the GOP more than Democrats: “We don’t expect the economy to be in a rip-roaring recovery next year, but that hurts Republicans even more than it hurts Democrats, because it changes what the major issues are.

“This is a contrast election,” Schumer said. “The theory of shrinking the government, get the government out of the way, has failed. Basically, it hasn’t done anything to improve people’s lives.” 

Schumer acknowledges that Democrats didn’t have an effective message last year, when the GOP won the House and cut significantly into the Democratic majority in the Senate.

He defends the healthcare law, asserting “it will go down in history as a good thing.” However, it was not the No. 1 thing on people’s minds — that was jobs and the economy, Schumer said.

“We didn’t have a narrative that fit,” he said.

Following the 2010 election, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tapped Schumer to pick up the pieces and take charge of the Senate Democratic message. 

Schumer has his hands on every aspect of the Democratic leadership operation, including fundraising, recruiting and getting into Republicans’ heads. 

An avid fan of the New York Yankees, Schumer is regularly focused on getting an edge on the GOP. 

Throughout a 20-minute interview, Schumer uses the words “higher ground,” “resonate” and “leverage” on multiple occasions.

It is tough, if not impossible, to get the Senate message guru off message. He has privately butted heads with Obama on tax policy, but declines to reveal what’s behind that curtain. 

At press conferences, many senators talk off the cuff. But not Schumer. Sporting bifocals, the 61-year-old senator reads from carefully prepared text of his message of the day.

The former House member knows that in politics, it’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it.

Addressing his idea to tax millionaires, Schumer said, “Simply attacking the wealthy is a bad idea. Saying the wealthy have to do their fair share is the right idea. We should be glad that there are people who made a lot of money. They’re part of the American way, they’re part of the American Dream.”

Schumer is known as a scrappy, street-fighter politician. He overcame long odds to win his 1998 Senate Democratic primary against Geraldine Ferraro before upsetting then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R) in the general election. 

As the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate who has his eyes on eventually becoming majority leader, Schumer appears to relish his battles with leading Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.).

Recently, Democrats have had Republicans scrambling on extending the payroll tax extension, which House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year criticized. Schumer, his smile widening, says the payroll tax battle “crystallizes” the message war in 2012. 

“We’re beginning to turn the tax issue around,” he said, adding that Republicans have had the “high ground” on taxes since President Reagan. Now that Democrats are on the same page about raising taxes on families making more than $1 million, the dynamic has changed, according to Schumer. 

Previously, Democrats had followed Obama’s lead on seeking to raise income taxes on families making $250,000 or more annually. Republicans assailed that policy as a major hit on small businesses throughout 2010.

Now, Obama is following Schumer’s lead. And by and large, House Democrats are also on board.

Unlike other lawmakers, Schumer glides back and forth easily between policy and campaign politics.

Keep your eye on the Senate races in North Dakota and Arizona, Schumer said, adding that Democrats can pick up seats in Massachusetts and Nevada. Depending on the outcome of the GOP primary, Indiana could also be in play, he said.

Ever the adept politician, Schumer is quick to give DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) a shout-out for her efforts.

“We’re expanding the map,” Schumer said. 

Republicans scoffed at Schumer’s crystal ball.

“Considering Sen. Schumer also predicted last year that supporting ObamaCare would be an ‘asset’ to Senate Democrat candidates, I hope for their candidates’ sake this cycle they’re not actually taking his predictions at face value. But we’ll leave the chest-thumping predictions and theatrics to Sen. Schumer,” said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

He added, “Republicans are focused on earning the trust and support of voters across the country, and if you have the right policies and vision, then the politics will take care of itself.” 

Schumer suggests Democrats have a ground-and-pound strategy in 2012, saying they will be talking about the payroll extension throughout December. 

There is a strategy in place for January as well, Schumer said, “which I will not share.”

While other Democrats on Capitol Hill are fretting over the next election, Schumer is an optimist. And, he notes, there is a lot of time between now and then. Sitting on the edge of his seat, Schumer said the Democratic message will “take awhile for it to break through, but it’s resonating.”