Sens. Patty Murray and Dick Durbin placed calls to Democratic senators over the April recess, intensifying speculation about a possible leadership contest between the senior Democrats.

Murray (Wash.) has not specifically mentioned running for Senate Democratic whip, a job currently held by Durbin (Ill.), but colleagues believe she is clearly looking at the possibility.

{mosads}She called senators to talk about leadership strategy and what the party needs to do to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans. Murray is currently the fourth-ranked Senate Democrat behind Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Durbin has placed similar calls and has already locked up a few votes to keep his job as Senate Democrats’ No. 2 leader. Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, have committed to voting for him.

Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) said he got a call from Murray while at his farm in Montana during the recess. He also fielded a call from Durbin.

“Dick was talking about what we need to do to win and what he’s willing to do to help. I think the undertone there was, you know, we’re going to help,” he said. “Patty was the same.”

Tester, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, said he did not know why Murray called when she left a message. He later read articles about a possible leadership race between Durbin and Murray.

“In fact, I was on the tractor during all this and I couldn’t figure out why Patty called until I read some of the stories,” he said. “I just called her up … I said, ‘Now I know why you called and we’ll get it sorted out.’ ”

Two other Democrats, Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), said they have recently received calls from Murray.

Schumer has the Democratic leader job locked up, though it’s unclear who his deputies will in the next Congress.

Murray spokesman Eli Zupnick said in an email, “Senator Murray has made it clear publicly and privately that she hopes to continue fighting for middle class families as a member of Democratic leadership next Congress, but she is focused on her current job and isn’t going to be speculating about other positions under Senator Schumer in leadership elections two years from now.”

Durbin declined Tuesday to talk about a possible whip’s race.

Addressing reporters at their weekly press conference, current Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Schumer dodged questions about the delicate issue. Reid announced late last month that he would retire at the end of this Congress.

“The next 18 months, we’re all going to work together under Senator Reid’s leadership to fight for the middle class, number one,” Schumer said on Tuesday. “Number two, to make sure that when Republicans are doing things to hurt the country, that we stop them. And three, to take back the majority.” 

Aides to Schumer and Durbin have clashed publicly in recent weeks. Durbin’s office says Schumer endorsed the Illinois Democrat for whip during a private conversation. Schumer’s office strongly denies that claim.

Schumer on Tuesday didn’t respond to a question on whether he and Durbin “hugged it out.”

Durbin and Murray apparently aren’t making specific requests, such as explicitly seeking endorsements. But conversations in the wake of Reid’s announcement are now seen through that prism.

Tester is wary of the conversation at this point.

“I think it’s very dangerous to be talking leadership 18 months, well, 21 months, out [from the election],” Tester added. “I just think it’s dangerous because you get the cart ahead of the horse.”

Leadership slots will not be decided until after the 2016 elections.

Murray has told reporters she is focused on passing a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and winning reelection in 2016. Speaking to reporters in Seattle two weeks ago, Murray said she would keep an open mind about future opportunities but declined to talk about moving up the leadership ranks and possibly bumping Durbin.

“I’m always open to whatever opportunity is there to make sure that I can be the strongest voice possible for the people of our state,” she said.

Reid, meanwhile, noted that leadership contests are a long way off: “Leadership positions for the … 115th Congress will be determined after the first of the year, toward the end of the next year,” he told reporters. “I’m so happy, proud … of my three leaders that have been with me basically during my entire tenure.” 

Durbin and Murray have downplayed talk of a budding rivalry this week.

They made a point of sitting next to each other at the Senate Democratic lunch Tuesday, the first one since Reid announced his retirement. The topic of a possible Durbin-Murray race did not come up at the lunch, sources said.

Murphy said he has traded calls with both Durbin and Murray.

Some of Durbin’s colleagues reached out to him to offer support after Schumer declined to publicly endorse his staying on as whip.

“I called him,” said Nelson. “He’s been a good whip.”

Some Democratic senators say they’re eager to see a shake-up in the leadership team when Reid steps down.

There is a growing sentiment that leadership should have more input from senators who arrived to the upper chamber within the past decade. Thirty-one Democratic senators have joined the body since 2006, and more freshmen will likely join the caucus in 2017. 

Murray was first elected to the Senate in 1992. Durbin was elected in 1996, and Schumer was elected in 1998. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the vice chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, who is now also considering her options, was elected in 2000.

Democratic senators say it is possible Durbin or Murray may get bumped from the team to make room for someone elected more recently who would have a strong sense of how to win in competitive states.

“I think the majority of the caucus wants Sen. Schumer to construct a leadership team that effects change. Debbie may very well be gone, Dick Durbin may be gone,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal caucus politics.

“The vast majority of the caucus was elected since 2006, and if the leadership team doesn’t reflect that, the caucus is not going to support it,” the senator added.

Seeking to respond to that pent-up frustration, Reid named Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who won election in 2012, to his leadership team late last year.

But the current hierarchy also has its defenders. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said he spoke out against a leadership shake-up when it was discussed seriously after Democrats lost control of the chamber in November. He noted they kept the majority intact through the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections.

Jordain Carney contributed.

Tags Angus King Bill Nelson Bob Casey Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Debbie Stabenow Dick Durbin Elizabeth Warren Harry Reid Jeanne Shaheen Jon Tester Patty Murray Sherrod Brown

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