Senate

Schumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress

The 2020 presidential election is going to be a headache for Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (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. 

{mosads}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 Trump 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 Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (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 Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats. All are in the party’s liberal wing: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (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 Kavanaugh 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 McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Joe Donnelly (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 Reid (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 McConnell (R-Ky.), who went through a similar situation in 2015 and 2016 when Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (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. 

 

Tags 2020 Democratic presidential primary Bernie Sanders Brett Kavanaugh Charles Schumer Claire McCaskill Cory Booker Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Harry Reid Jeff Merkley Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin Jon Tester Kirsten Gillibrand Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Ted Cruz
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more

Video

See all Video