Schumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress

The 2020 presidential election is going to be a headache for Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFreedom Caucus calls on leadership to include wall funding, end to 'catch and release' in funding bill Push to pay congressional interns an hour gains traction with progressives House approves two-week spending measure to avert shutdown MORE (N.Y.).

To have a chance of winning the Senate majority in 2020, Democrats will have to win over centrist voters in states such as Colorado, Maine, Iowa, North Carolina and Alabama.

The best way to do that for Schumer is to keep his caucus focused on health care and other practical middle-class issues.

But the half-dozen Senate Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination will have just as much — if not more — interest in hitting on hot-button topics that rev up the liberal base. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Otherwise, they risk getting overlooked in what is certain to be a crowded field where White House hopefuls will be fiercely competing for media attention.  

The 2020 race is also likely to produce attendance problems, a headache for a leader who will need to keep his caucus together and in Washington for close votes.

Schumer faces high hurdles to winning the Senate in 2020.

He’s likely to face a deficit of two or three seats with races in Florida and Arizona still being contested.

That will mean winning GOP seats in states that voted for President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Ayers decision casts harsh light on Trump NASA offers to show Stephen Curry evidence from moon landings Freedom Caucus calls on leadership to include wall funding, end to 'catch and release' in funding bill MORE such as Iowa, North Carolina and Georgia, while defeating talented GOP incumbents in Colorado and Maine. 

Democrats also will be defending Sen. Doug Jones’s seat in deep-red Alabama, a state Trump carried by 28 points in 2016.

Usually the best way to win in Senate battlegrounds is to nominate centrist candidates who focus on bread-and-butter issues.

Schumer highlighted that as a key political goal when asked what Democrats have to do to win the majority in 2020. 

“By focusing on middle-class issues that affect average voters such as health care, drug prices, things like that, I think we’ll expand our majority,” Schumer said Wednesday. 

Winning back red-states in the Senate isn’t impossible for Democrats.

This past week, Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSchumer to Trump: Future infrastructure bill must combat climate change Overnight Energy: Senate confirms controversial energy pick | EPA plans rollback of Obama coal emissions rule | GOP donor gave Pruitt K for legal defense Senate confirms Trump’s controversial energy pick MORE (D-W.Va.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterO’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold Schumer gets ready to go on the offensive Criminal justice reform splits 2020 Democrats MORE (D-Mont.) won in pro-Trump states. Both emphasized the rising cost of health care, protecting people with pre-existing conditions and taking care of veterans.

Winning in 2020 could be different with Trump on the ballot, however.

In addition, the presidential race will highlight differences between the parties at the top of the ticket. If a Democratic senator is the party’s nominee, it could also be tougher for senators down-ballot to run on their own records.

Five Senate Democrats are believed to be exploring presidential bids, in addition to Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCorker to introduce resolution holding Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi's death Gillum reached out to O’Rourke amid 2020 speculation: report O'Rourke spoke with Al Sharpton amid 2020 speculation MORE (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats. All are in the party’s liberal wing: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDems ask if Trump aide Bill Shine is breaking ethics laws The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump searches for next chief of staff | Congress, Trump dig in for funding fight | Why O'Rourke worries some Dems Warren has contacted 100 people in early 2020 primary states: report MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker's potential 2020 bid is generating buzz among Democratic activists, says political reporter The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold MORE (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren has contacted 100 people in early 2020 primary states: report O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold Warren fell for ‘Trump trap’ with DNA test, says progressive MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandWarren has contacted 100 people in early 2020 primary states: report O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold NRA's Loesch: Gillibrand’s 'future Is female’ tweet 'is pretty sexist' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan Merkley How to reform the federal electric vehicle tax credit Dem senator accuses Trump of aiding 'cover up' over Khashoggi Criminal justice reform splits 2020 Democrats MORE (D-Ore.). 

They all back Medicare for All Act, a single-payer health-care plan sponsored by Sanders that Republicans say would drive up the deficit.

Two — Gillibrand and Warren — have called for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Booker played a leading role in opposing Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Amgen — Supreme Court sides with Planned Parenthood, declines to take funding case | NIH to fund research into fetal tissue alternatives | Oklahoma seeks Trump approval for Medicaid work requirements Time fumbles another 'Person of the Year' by excluding Kavanaugh Trump, Mueller both make Time 'Person of the Year' shortlist MORE and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of an effort to impeach him. 

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned this past week that Democratic rhetoric hurt the party’s chances in Senate races this year.  

“Every time Democrats mentioned the word 'impeachment' or talked about abolishing ICE, Republicans benefited,” he wrote. 

 Kristof said Booker’s stand against Kavanaugh revved up liberals but probably hurt centrist candidates who lost reelection, such as Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMissouri GOP Secretary of State launches investigation into Hawley’s time as AG The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Congress to act soon to avoid shutdown Schumer gets ready to go on the offensive MORE (D-Mo.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySchumer gets ready to go on the offensive Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments 10 things we learned from the midterms MORE (D-Ind.). 

“Senator Cory Booker’s ‘Spartacus moment’ thrilled some Democrats but hurt the party,” Kristof wrote. 

“That’s a risk going forward: Democrats jockeying for the presidential nomination in 2020 will tug the party toward impeachment talk or a blizzard of subpoenas — in ways that may help Trump,” he wrote. 

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who did three fellowships with former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidManchin’s likely senior role on key energy panel rankles progressives Water wars won’t be won on a battlefield Poll finds most Americans and most women don’t want Pelosi as Speaker MORE (D-Nev.), said there’s not much Schumer can do to rein in Sanders, Warren or other colleagues if they break from party message. 

“There’s not really that much he can do personally to rein in Elizabeth Warren, to rein in Kamala Harris. You can counsel them, you can point them in a direction you think they ought to go but if they want to go full out in a populist direction or progressive direction, there’s not a whole lot he can do about it,” he said. 

“If they chart their own way and they decide what they need to do is a Beto O’Rourke approach, Schumer can stand by and look disapprovingly about it but I don’t know that he can really stop them,” Baker added, referring to populist Texas Senate Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke.

He noted that Schumer, who thought Democrats should have focused on fixing the economy instead of passing the Affordable Care Act during former President Obama’s first year in office, has a pragmatic streak. 

“His instincts are more conservative,” he said. “He necessarily doesn’t want to be dragged way the heck over to the left.”

Jim Kessler, a former Schumer aide and senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a Democratic think tank, said he agrees with Kristof.

“I think Kristof is right, voters really wanted to hear a lot more about things that affect them,” he said. “They care about things like health care costs and jobs and opportunity.” 

He said when a bunch of senators are gearing up to run for the presidency, “it’s a challenge for whoever is leading that caucus.”

“It’ll be a challenge for Schumer with so many people running for office,” he added, predicting Schumer would ask his colleagues to wage their battles on the campaign trail and “not force the Senate’s hands” on votes and other issues. 

Schumer on Sunday argued that the Democratic Party will benefit from a competition of ideas during the primary.

“I think we have lots of strong candidates across the political spectrum. My basic philosophy right now is let a thousand flowers bloom. Let’s get a lot of people out there,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe Judd Gregg: The government goes geriatric MORE (R-Ky.), who went through a similar situation in 2015 and 2016 when Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGillum reached out to O’Rourke amid 2020 speculation: report O'Rourke spoke with Al Sharpton amid 2020 speculation O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold MORE (R-Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLimited Senate access to CIA intelligence is not conspiracy Dems have new moniker for Trump: ‘Unindicted co-conspirator' Rand Paul downplays potential Trump campaign finance violations: 'We’ve over-criminalized campaign finance' MORE (R-Ky.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCorker to introduce resolution holding Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi's death Cornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe MORE (R-S.C.) ran for president, has suggested he’s happy to see his counterpart deal with the dilemma.

“It’s going to be fun to watch the Democratic presidential aspirants” compete, McConnell quipped Wednesday. 

Republican strategists say Schumer’s message tailored to moderate and swing voters will have to compete with his colleagues’ efforts to rev up the base. 

“It’s always a challenge for a Senate leader when you have multiple members of your conference running for president. For starters, you have attendance problems. Compounding the attendance problem is the fact that they’re in a race to appeal to the further reaches of the party by the definition of the campaign they’re in,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP strategist and McConnell’s former chief of staff. 

“Whatever message you’re trying to drive as a conference doesn’t exist,” he added. “His conference [members] in trying to compete with each other are going to be drowning out everything he says.” 

Democratic candidates in Senate primaries may also be tempted to run to the left with better-known White House hopefuls atop the tickets, he predicted.   

“The biggest challenge for Democrats is going to be in the nomination process for Senate candidates. You don’t have the presidential primary discussion in a well — that happens everywhere — and there are going to an awful lot of candidates echoing that message and other more electable candidates not willing to go along for the ride,” Holmes. 

“You could see the Democratic primary process really upended at the Senate level in 2020,” he said.