Schumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress

The 2020 presidential election is going to be a headache for Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Biden administration stokes frustration over Canada Schumer blasts McCarthy for picking people who 'supported the big lie' for Jan. 6 panel 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. 

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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 TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? 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 ManchinJoe ManchinWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Overnight Energy: Senate panel advances controversial public lands nominee | Nevada Democrat introduces bill requiring feds to develop fire management plan | NJ requiring public water systems to replace lead pipes in 10 years Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (D-W.Va.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor GOP blocks infrastructure debate as negotiators near deal GOP negotiators say they'll vote to start infrastructure debate next week 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 SandersBernie SandersPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia US launches second Somalia strike in week MORE (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats. All are in the party’s liberal wing: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia Warren-backed amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to defense bill MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerJD Vance takes aim at culture wars, childless politicians Poll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Democrats criticize FBI's handling of tip line in Kavanaugh investigation MORE (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisJD Vance takes aim at culture wars, childless politicians Poll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Ron Johnson: 'I may not be the best candidate' for 2022 midterms MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyBipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Lawmakers urge Biden to make 'bold decisions' in nuclear review This week: Senate faces infrastructure squeeze 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 KavanaughOn The Money: Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' | Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag Christine Blasey Ford's lawyers blast FBI's Kavanaugh investigation as 'sham' Ocasio-Cortez calls on CDC to extend eviction ban 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 McCaskillGiuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri McCaskill shares new July 4 family tradition: Watching Capitol riot video Joe Manchin's secret MORE (D-Mo.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySupreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Republicans fret over divisive candidates Everybody wants Joe Manchin 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 ReidSenate hopefuls embrace nuking filibuster Biden fails to break GOP 'fever' Nevada governor signs law making state first presidential primary 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 McConnellHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Tokyo Olympics kick off with 2020-style opening ceremony MORE (R-Ky.), who went through a similar situation in 2015 and 2016 when Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia next week Here's evidence the Senate confirmation process is broken MORE (R-Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP Rep. Cawthorn says he wants to 'prosecute' Fauci Writer: Fauci, Paul clash shouldn't distract from probe into COVID-19 origins S.E. Cupp: 'The politicization of science and health safety has inarguably cost lives' MORE (R-Ky.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform 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.