“We have to win,” said Senator Charles Schumer, banging a table with his fist at a diner close to his Park Slope home on Monday morning. “You have got to be strong and focused. If you get thrown off course, you lose.”
Like Atlas with a drab tie and a Brooklyn accent, Mr. Schumer carries the weight of the Democratic Party’s hopes on his shoulders.
He has spent much of the past year discharging his duties as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, nagging reluctant recruits into running for office and applying his legendary fund-raising skills to transform the Democrats’ debt-ridden coffers into a $64 million war chest.
But though Mr. Schumer is better known for his maniacal work rate than his philosophical musings—and despite a miniature flurry of good news for the ruling Republicans—Mr. Schumer has the air of a man who has the fall elections all figured out.
On the sticky subject of immigration policy, a possible October wedge issue for the Republicans, he says it will hurt the G.O.P. more than the Democrats.
On the recent return of Karl Rove from under the cloud of a federal investigation, Mr. Schumer contends that the G.O.P.’s master campaign architect has lost his touch anyway.
He views fundamental disagreements over strategy within the party as a trifling detail that is actually generating more contributions for his Senate races.
And when it comes to Iraq, an issue on which the Republicans are once again attempting to make the Democrats look like indecisive quislings, Mr. Schumer sees no need even to take a position.
“The average person knows: We are not commander in chief, we are not in the majority—our job is to hold Bush’s feet to the fire,” said Mr. Schumer. “And the whole issue of Iraq will be how well George Bush is doing in Iraq, not if Democrats have a substitute plan or not.”
The theme of the 2006 elections, according to Mr. Schumer, is that they will be—must be—all about the Bush Presidency.
“This is going to be a referendum on George Bush,” Mr. Schumer said.
It is with this in mind that Mr. Schumer has set about his historic task of wresting the Senate from Republican hands.
Over an order of a “small glass of orange juice and three tall glasses of water, no ice” in a booth at the Purity Diner on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, Mr. Schumer presented the pitch he has delivered to scores of potential Democratic donors, complete with references to the “theocrats” and “economic royalists” he says handpicked George Bush and ran the country into the ground.
The nation’s hopes, he said, rest on the results of Senate contests in seven battleground states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Arizona.
“Here’s where they stand, if the election were held today: We are ahead in the polls in five states where we are challenging their incumbents; they are not ahead in a single blue state,” said Mr. Schumer, diluting some of his orange juice in a glass of water. “So this idea that this is going to be an anti-incumbent election and not an anti-Republican election is at least belied by the numbers.”
The Republicans currently control 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and the Democrats need to capture six seats to take control.
But is that possible?
Mr. Schumer, for all his confidence, seems to be setting his sites somewhat short of total victory.
“A bad year now will be staying even,” he said. “A moderate year, pick up one or two. And a good year, we pick up three or more.”
There is no telling for sure the extent to which Mr. Schumer is simply managing expectations. His predecessor in the job of DSCC chair, former Senator and current New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine, fell well short of initial projections—the Democrats ended up losing four seats in the 2004 election—and his reputation in the Senate wasn’t helped as a result.
Mr. Schumer—in one of the highest-profile roles of his career—has no intention of allowing the same thing to happen to him.
“It’s strategy, it’s fund-raising, it’s the Schumer method, it’s everything—again, I did not take this job to lose,” he said. “Now can we take back the Senate, it’s still an outside chance. Numbers are very tough. We have to keep 10 of 10 blue states and win six of eight red states.”
He has involved himself intimately in shaping the strategies of the individual Democratic candidates, to the point that they have begun taking on some of the attributes of Mr. Schumer himself. For example, Mr. Schumer required that everyone talk about issues in a major media market at least once a month, and he preached the wisdom of the “Schumer Method” and Sunday press conference, which a few candidates have adopted.
“I sometimes have to boost them up,” Mr. Schumer explained. “Sometimes you have to be a psychologist, when people are down in the dumps or people are not working hard enough. I called up one candidate—I said, ‘You are spending five hours on the phone a week. You don’t spend more, don’t expect any help from us.’”
And on a party-wide level, he has inserted himself into the highest levels of strategic decision-making, publicly airing his strategic differences with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, whose long-term “50-state” strategy of party-building clashes with Mr. Schumer’s immediate goal of prevailing in the upcoming Congressional elections. Mr. Schumer implied that the disagreements have actually benefited his cause. (Several major contributors have taken to contributing to the Senate effort instead of to the party committee.)
“I think the discussion has benefited us,” said Mr. Schumer about the difference in strategy between the two committees. “Fund-raising is going great.”
So what’s actually going to happen in the election?
“Of all the red states, Pennsylvania is the one that looks the best,” said Mr. Schumer, whose pro-life draftee Bob Casey has a double-digit lead over incumbent Senator Rick Santorum in most polls. Mr. Schumer said the tougher battles would come in Tennessee, Arizona or Virginia, though he is particularly excited about Missouri, where, based on local polls, he believes Democrat Claire McCaskill is leading incumbent Jim Talent.
Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Mr. Schumer’s approach to the Iraq question irresponsible and predicted that his electoral strategy would ultimately backfire.
“They’ve absolutely sent mixed signals and dangerous signals on the war on terror in Iraq,” he said. “The voters don’t like it.”
Although Mr. Nick conceded that Mr. Schumer has done an exceptional job raising money, he suggested that the nearly $15 million gap between the two Senatorial committees in this election cycle would narrow when President Bush hits the campaign trail. And he warned that Mr. Schumer’s confidence about picking up seats was unfounded.
“Schumer has built up expectations to an amazing level,” said Mr. Nick. “Anything short of his taking the Senate is going to be looked at as failure.”
There is some criticism of Mr. Schumer’s tactical decisions—particularly on Iraq—coming from the Democratic side.
“My feeling is that the Democrats really need to put something a little bit more definite on the table,” said Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic strategist and author of The Emerging Democratic Majority. “If they want to maximize their gains, you have to give people a sense of hope and the impression of forward motion.”
Nor do the polls show the sort of sweeping victory Mr. Schumer is hoping for.
A survey by pollster John Zogby that appeared in The Wall Street Journal last week showed Ms. McCaskill trailing by as many as five points. The poll also showed Republican incumbents with leads in Arizona and Virginia.
“This could be the landslide, but I just don’t see it right now,” said Mr. Zogby. “It is not going to be possible unless the Democrats declare some type of clarity on the war. Meaning an alternative and an exit strategy.”
Hence, amid some of the lowest Presidential approval ratings in recent memory—a Washington Post–ABC News poll released June 27 showed Mr. Bush with a 38 percent approval rating—some Sunday-morning talk shows and the major print media in the past few weeks have actually been talking about a new “G.O.P. momentum.”
Mr. Schumer strongly disagrees.
“This idea of the Bush surge in the last few weeks—it’s not happening,” he said, attributing the shifting storyline to “media pundits who blow with the wind.”
Not that he plans to let any of his candidates get distracted by the media-driven storyline.
“I talk to them every week, every one of them,” said Mr. Schumer. “Sherrod Brown”—a Democratic Congressman and Senate candidate in Ohio—“I see in the House gym three times a week.”
He took time out from his daughter’s Harvard graduation party to speak with Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey after a brutal campaign debate with Republican Tom Kean Jr. Mr. Schumer’s staff called the Casey campaign to talk strategy after Mr. Santorum changed his position on the issue of a minimum-wage hike last week. And he has spoken personally with Mr. Casey and Ms. McCaskill in Missouri about responding to Republican attacks over immigration.
“The best thing against them is: Where have you been for 12 years?” said Mr. Schumer. “We sent out word to all of our challengers: When they attack you on this, this is the answer.”
Sure enough, when The Observer posed a question about immigration to Mario E. Diaz, campaign manager to Jim Pederson, the underdog Democratic candidate in the border state of Arizona, he duly responded that “the immigration issue did not appear overnight.”
Mr. Diaz not only credited Mr. Schumer with feeding them lines, but added that the DSCC has supplied opposition research on the voting record of Mr. Pederson’s opponent, Senator John Kyl.
The trick now, according to Mr. Schumer, will be to ensure that all of the Democratic candidates are prepared for the inevitable emergence of some visceral issue—terrorism, gay marriage—that will trump whatever the Democrats have planned.
Mr. Schumer thinks he has that one figured out as well.
“I’m always looking what’s the issue they are going to try and tag us with,” said Mr. Schumer. “It’s clearer and clearer it’s immigration—unless they find something better. It’s not as good as their previous issues. Why? Because first they have a ‘lose’ side—the Hispanic vote. They never cared about the gay vote or the black vote.”
The architect of those very effective fall-season specials in the past has been Mr. Rove, in whom many political analysts saw a resurgence after it was recently announced that he was no longer under federal investigation in the Valerie Plame–C.I.A. leak case.
Many political observers have taken that as a sort of omen that history is about to repeat itself.
But Mr. Schumer, true to form, belittled any talk of Mr. Rove’s renewed relevance by contending that his grand, long-term plan for Republican national dominance—an effort to recruit Hispanic voters to the party—collapsed recently when the President’s plan on immigration was defeated by Congressional Republicans.
Mr. Schumer’s take, in a neat, campaign-season sound bite: “He lost.”