WASHINGTON -- A staple Republican tactic for several years has been to get Chuck Schumer on television. His whiny New York accent exhaling liberal dogma was music to GOP ears. Yet, his omnipresence on TV since the midterm elections has not been cause for Republican jubilation.
That's because Schumer, for once, has not been talking -- just beaming. In every televised tableau of victorious Democrats, the long, smiling face of Sen. Charles Schumer has been positioned beside the next House speaker or Senate majority leader. He deserved the place of honor for his paramount role in achieving a Senate majority that nobody expected as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
Because of his soaring ambition, Schumer had been in danger of becoming a comic figure and the subject of a cliche: the most dangerous place to be in Washington or New York is caught between Schumer and a TV camera. But far from the attention hog or reflexive liberal he often has seemed in a 32-year legislative career, Schumer at the DSCC was a coolly pragmatic decision-maker. He far outdid his Republican counterpart, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, in fund-raising, recruitment and strategy.
After easily winning Senate re-election in 2004, Schumer considered a race for governor of New York as integral to his dream of becoming the nation's first Jewish president. But State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer stood in the way, and Schumer instead agreed to head the DSCC.
He faced a daunting task. Of the three Senate election cycles, 2006 was easily the most hazardous for Democrats. Far from achieving the net gain of six seats needed to take control, Democrats were in danger of losing seats in Nebraska, Florida, West Virginia, Washington, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Schumer, using his New York connections, raised $23 million from the metropolitan area alone. For the first time, the DSCC outraised the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in both years of the election cycle. As of mid-October, the DSCC had outspent the NRSC, $94.6 million to $70 million.
Ending the old DSCC practice of sending money to safe incumbents, Schumer said to donors: "I've told Ted [Kennedy] and Hillary [Clinton] that they're getting nothing." He stressed fund-raising for Democratic senators from states carried by George W. Bush. Early war chests built by Sens. Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Bill Nelson in Florida and Robert Byrd in West Virginia frightened off serious contenders.
While Dole was striking out in recruiting, Schumer successfully prevented the retirement of incumbent Democrats, which had led to many losses in 2004. He also displayed pragmatism in candidate selection that belied his left-wing stereotype. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told Schumer he would not want the best candidate against Republican Sen. Rick Santorum because State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. was pro-life and pro-gun. "If he can win, I don't care," Schumer replied. He also took the unusual step in the Virginia primary of endorsing Jim Webb against liberal stalwart Harris Miller, even though Webb had backed Bush and Republican Sen. George Allen in 2000.
Fund-raising and recruitment have been traditional duties for DSCC chairmen, but Schumer also entered the realm of overall strategy. Here, too, he contradicted his image of the panting ideologue demanding a litmus test for judicial nominees and grossly exaggerating the Valerie Plame leak. He pressed Democratic candidates not to flatly oppose extension of the Patriot Act, but to work for a bipartisan compromise. Earlier, he threatened to cut off funds to Democratic candidates if they crippled each other in bloody, negative primaries, as they had done in Florida in 2002.
While Schumer takes credit for helping make the Tennessee Senate race competitive, the DSCC at the end pulled the plug on Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr. on grounds money could be used more effectively elsewhere. The endgame strategy of concentrating on Montana, Missouri and Virginia produced a Democratic majority.
While he agreed to continue heading the DSCC in the 2008 cycle, Schumer's role in his party's leadership was enhanced. Majority Leader Harry Reid (by tradition, chairman of the Democratic Conference) created the new role of Conference vice chairman for Schumer. He no longer is the GOP's favorite television personality.