Schumer kicks into reelection mode

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) isn’t leaving anything to chance as he heads into his 2022 reelection campaign. 

Schumer won his fourth Senate term in 2016 with 70 percent of the vote, but 19 months out from Election Day he’s already working all-out like a first-term senator in a battleground state.

After a grueling five-week work period during which Congress passed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and wrapped up work on filling his Cabinet — a busy stretch that came on the heels of former President Trump’s second impeachment trial — Schumer might feel like he’s earned a little downtime.

Instead, Schumer told reporters he will be traveling around New York during the two-week April recess as part his goal to visit all 62 counties in the state this year.

When Politico reporter Burgess Everett suggested at a recent press briefing that those travels might be related to a certain upcoming election, Schumer bristled at the implication while throwing in some humor. 

“Do I visit every one of the 62 counties every one of the 22 years I’ve run? Yes or no?” Schumer said as he walked out of the briefing room to laughter from the assembled group of reporters. “Bad comment, Burgess.”

Veteran political observers in the Empire State say Schumer’s focus on being visible to constituents has played a key role in his electoral success over the years.

“Schumer will never allow himself to be outworked by anybody. One of his true beliefs is that as a senator from New York state he has to know people of all the counties of New York state. So for every year that he’s been in the Senate, 22 years, he travels to each of the 62 counties in New York state,” said Harvey Schantz, a professor of political science at SUNY Plattsburgh.

“He knows you can be the biggest big shot in Washington, D.C., but if you don’t get reelected, you lost your seat, you lost your majority leadership. He’s not going to let that happen.”

But top leadership posts don’t guarantee reelection. 

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) suffered a stunning loss to then-Rep. John Thune (R) in the 2004 elections, despite Daschle’s record of delivering billions of federal dollars to South Dakota over the years.

Another cautionary tale was then-Speaker Tom Foley’s (D-Wash.) shocking defeat to GOP challenger George Nethercutt in the Republican revolution of 1994.

Those races, however, were in the general election. And the bigger threat to Schumer is in the primary.

New York is a reliable Democratic state, and an incumbent Democratic senator has never lost a race for reelection there since the 17th Amendment established the direct election of senators in 1913, according to Schantz.

But speculation has stirred since the start of the year about a potential primary challenge from rising progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who sent shockwaves through New York politics when she defeated former Rep. Joseph Crowley, a member of the House Democratic leadership, in a stunning 2018 primary upset. Ocasio-Cortez was only 28 at the time and was heavily outspent by Crowley.

Ocasio-Cortez in January declined to rule out a possible primary challenge against Schumer, saying only, “I’m trying to decide what is the most effective thing I can do to help our Congress, our [political] process and our country actually address the issues of climate change, health care, wage inequality.”

New York-based political experts and Democratic strategists say Schumer, 70, continues to be a formidable power and presence in the state and any challenger would face an extremely difficult path to victory, but they caution the nation’s political climate is too unpredictable to project anything with absolute certainty.

Democratic strategist Danny Franklin said Schumer is “where he is because he’s indefatigable.”

“No one is going to sneak up on Chuck Schumer,” he said, adding that incumbents around the state have learned the lesson from Crowley’s defeat.

“Now there’s no way that anybody is not going to take a challenge like that seriously,” Franklin added. “A challenge from the right or left flank of the party is so baked into everyone’s consciousness right now that no one is taking anything for granted.”

Franklin said one of the main lessons taken from the changes in voting patterns seen in the 2020 elections is that politicians can no longer assume support from any constituency.

“Right now the political culture is very oriented toward paranoia, and only the paranoid will survive,” he said. 

Schumer has been careful to shore up what is seen as potentially his biggest vulnerability, a primary challenge from the left.

He teamed up with Ocasio-Cortez last year to push for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide special assistance to help New York families pay for the funeral expenses of loved ones who died during the pandemic.  

Schumer and Ocasio-Cortez announced a few days ago that FEMA will now pay as much as $9,000 per funeral.

Schumer also held a press conference in early February with two high-profile progressives — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a member of the so-called squad — to call on President Biden to use his executive power to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower.

Biden later rejected the proposal at a CNN town hall.

Another crucial element of Schumer’s political formula is delivering for New York, both downstate and upstate and for blue-collar and white-collar industries alike.

“No one has ever worked harder at representing the people of the state as Chuck has. That’s been true for a long time,” said Daniel Squadron, a former Democratic member of the New York state Senate who’s now executive director of the Future Now Fund.

Schumer’s position as Senate minority leader during negotiations for the CARES Act in March 2020 and the year-end $900 billion COVID-19 relief package, as well as his promotion to majority leader before Congress passed the $1.9 trillion relief bill this month, has meant more than $250 billion in federal funding for New York state, according to Schumer’s calculations.

New York’s metro transit agencies got more than $4 billion in the $900 billion package passed in December, a substantial portion of the whopping $45 billion in the bill for transit systems. The package also included $15 billion in Small Business Administration grants for theater operators and venue owners through the Save Our Stages Act, another Schumer priority.

Schumer estimated New York would get about $100 billion from the American Rescue Plan, including $23.8 billion going directly to New York’s local governments as well as funding for education, transit, highways and vaccine distribution.

To many, it’s a contrast from earlier in his career, when Schumer was very much known as a dependable Wall Street ally — he supported the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the firewall between investment and commercial banks and later helped slow a proposal to increase taxes on carried interest by insisting they also apply to real estate, oil and gas, and venture capital partnerships.

But as he’s climbed the leadership ladder, he has become less of an outspoken advocate for the financial services industry. In recent months, he has highlighted how the federal government can help the nation pull through an economic and health crisis in a way the private sector never could on its own.

Still, as one of the three top leaders of the Democratic Party along with Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Schumer hasn’t shied away from putting New York’s interests ahead of the prevailing sentiment within his party on some issues.

His successful bid to quietly add nearly $3 billion in funding for private schools in the American Rescue Plan, something New York’s Orthodox Jewish community lobbied for, put him at odds with Pelosi and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) as well as the National Education Association. 

But it was a win for yeshivas and Catholic schools around New York. 

Schumer also worked behind the scenes in recent weeks to slow down plans by FEMA to announce new flood insurance rates at the start of next month, which would have raised costs for constituents living along the waterfront in Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. 

Former Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), who represented the area around Syracuse for 20 years in the House, said Schumer knows that getting headlines in the local papers around New York are key to his political future. 

“He really does tremendous outreach, whether it’s in the Senate or New York state,” he said. “He loves his job, he’s in a great spot, so he’s not going to give it up easily.

“I remember when we were earmarking, he was incredibly covetous of getting credit for those earmarks. Why? Because you can do the greatest things in the world that makes The Washington Post love you, but if the Syracuse Post-Standard doesn’t love you and the Albany Times Union doesn’t love you and the Buffalo Courier-Express doesn’t love you, you’re not cutting it back home,” he said.

“He’s been pretty adept at balancing the national and the local,” he added. “The fact that he visits 62 counties every year tells you he knows what side of the bread is buttered.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Joe Crowley John Thune Nancy Pelosi New York Patty Murray primary challenger reelection campaign Senate majority leader

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