Schumer gets ready to go on the offensive

Greg Nash

After spending the past two years trying to protect 10 incumbent Democrats in pro-Trump states, the Senate minority leader is ready to put Republicans on the defensive, knowing the GOP will have a tougher electoral map to defend in 2020.

Republicans will have a bigger Senate majority next year — 53 seats compared to 51 seats now — but will also have more seats that Democrats are looking to pick off in the next election cycle.

{mosads}Schumer has started flexing his muscles in the lame-duck session of Congress. He’s pushing Republicans to add measures such as protecting special counsel Robert Mueller and eliminating a question about citizenship from the U.S. census to a year-end spending package.

He has also dismissed the possibility of reviving an immigration deal he offered to President Trump earlier this year that would fully fund the proposed border wall in exchange for protections for immigrants who came to the country illegally at a young age.

“It’s harder to be bold when you’re in the minority, and there were a lot of red-state Democrats up for reelection,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who served as a White House adviser during the Clinton administration. “Do I think they were especially bold in the last cycle? No, not especially, but I think there were political reasons for that.”

“Now they’re freed up to be more bold and be more aggressive,” he said.

Senate Democratic leaders see party control of the House as a powerful weapon in advancing their message in 2020.

They predict the House will pass popular legislation like measures that would lower prescription drug prices and shore up protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, putting pressure on Senate Republicans to act.

One member of Schumer’s leadership team called the House Democratic majority “a major asset” and said it would help the party’s message get more media attention.

Senate Democrats say they will take a firm stand against controversial nominees such as Thomas Farr, who was picked by Trump to sit on the district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. His nomination was derailed last week after Schumer led a coordinated effort to oppose him.

The New York Democrat took aim at another nominee, Bernard McNamee, who was appointed to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Schumer took to the Senate floor to call him a radical climate-change denier.

“Mr. McNamee has expressed thoughts that only a real fossil fuel zealot could have,” Schumer said. “Not only has Mr. McNamee made numerous false claims about clean energy technologies, he’s labeled support for renewable energies [as] organized propaganda and likened its boosters to supporters of tyranny.”

The Senate advanced McNamee’s nomination on a 50-49 vote, with final confirmation expected on Thursday.

Democratic aides predict Schumer will lead similar opposition to nominees next year, including Trump’s eventual pick for attorney general and Andrew Wheeler, who was tapped last month to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Democratic strategists believe that they can also go on the offensive with environmental issues in a way that was not possible this year, when they had to defend vulnerable senators in coal-producing states like West Virginia, Montana, Indiana and North Dakota — which all rank among the nation’s top 10 producers of coal.

“I think these environmental issues are becoming more top-of-mind, and there is a direct connection between what’s happening with our environment and the president and the Republican Party’s decision not to accept science with climate change,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign. “I think that is an emerging issue with young people.”

Devine noted that young voters turned out in record numbers for last month’s midterm elections and that motivating them ahead of 2020 will be a smart strategy.

Brian Fallon, a former Schumer aide, said Democrats can play offense on other issues that didn’t get much notice in competitive Senate races this year: affirmative action, voting rights and the census.

“I think there will be a lot of Republicans running in states that the Democratic presidential nominee should win or run very competitively in,” he said.

Fallon, who now serves as executive director of Demand Justice, a group that led opposition to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said this year’s Supreme Court battle will come back to hurt GOP moderates up for reelection in 2020 who voted to confirm him.

“We’re going to be spending resources in states like Colorado, Maine and North Carolina to make sure the vote for Kavanaugh is remembered for the next two years,” he said.

Fallon predicted that Supreme Court decisions on issues ranging from affirmative action to the special counsel’s investigation could become liabilities for Senate GOP incumbents.

It’s a much different dynamic than in 2018, when red-state Democrats such as Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) scrambled to distance themselves from the contentious Supreme Court fight.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has to protect 22 GOP seats in the next election cycle, compared to only nine in 2018, when Democrats had the burden of defending 24 seats.

Democrats think they have a chance of winning GOP-held seats in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina and even Georgia, traditionally a Republican state, in 2020.

“The 2018 Senate map was the most favorable map for Republicans in our lifetime, so by comparison any other map is going to be more competitive,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

But Ayres warned that it’s far too early to predict the political environment leading up to Election Day 2020.

“It’s exceedingly difficult for me to get any sense of what 2020 will be like until we know two things: what’s in the Mueller report and who the Democrats are going to nominate,” Ayres said, referring to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

“If they nominate some far-left-wing whack job that is unacceptable to the broad middle of America, then you have a very different dynamic than if they nominate someone who is within shouting distance of the political center,” he said.

Schumer sounded a much more conciliatory tone two years ago after Trump won the presidency in a massive upset and Republicans kept control of Congress.

He promised to oppose Trump when necessary but also work with him when possible.

After Democrats captured the House and picked up seven governorships last month, Schumer cast doubt on the possibility of striking a deal with Trump on immigration or anything of significance.

“As we’ve seen, the president’s a very poor negotiator on those issues. He makes agreements and he backs off, so we’re sort of dubious of sitting down with the president and making that kind of exchange again when twice he’s shaken hands and backed off,” the Democratic leader said the day after the Nov. 6 elections, referring to a potential deal on border security and immigration reform.

More recently, Schumer has called on Trump to stay out of the end-of-year spending talks, predicting that congressional leaders can reach a deal as long as the president doesn’t get involved.

Senate Democrats say Schumer feels he has a lot more leverage with Trump now that Democrats control the House, which is one of the reasons he has rejected the possibility of reviving the deal he offered the president in January: full funding for the border wall in exchange for reauthorizing immigrant protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump rescinded last year.

One Schumer confidant said he offered Trump border wall funding in exchange for reimplementing DACA protections because “the fear was that we would get overrun because they had everything” — the Senate, House and White House.

Schumer isn’t reviving the border wall for DACA trade because Democrats “now know we have a backstop in the House,” the source said. “Now they can’t get anything done unless they come to the middle, and Chuck knows that.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Brett Kavanaugh Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Joe Donnelly Jon Tester Mitch McConnell Robert Mueller
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