Nobody says bad things about Patty Murray.
It’s a fringe benefit of taking on one of the toughest political jobs in town: chairing Senate Democrats’ 2012 campaign operation during an election cycle in which her party is more likely to lose control of the chamber than maintain its majority.
On the heels of her own bruising 2010 contest, the Washington state Democrat stepped up, at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s request, to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in a cycle where Democrats are defending 23 seats compared with Republicans’ 10. That’s the biggest gap between the two parties since 1980, when Democrats lost 12 seats and their majority. The stark political climate and the Herculean effort it will take to limit losses were enough to persuade other senators, including Colorado’s Michael Bennet and Virginia’s Mark Warner, to resist Reid’s entreaties, leaving Murray to shoulder the challenge.
By all accounts, taking on the job has cemented Murray’s reputation within the Democratic caucus to the point that her colleagues widely view her as a natural to move up the leadership ladder in a post-Reid Senate. This is no small feat, considering that no woman has been either leader or whip in the chamber. In fact, the only woman in congressional history to serve in a top position is Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been whip, leader, and House speaker.
But before Murray, 60, can assess her own political horizons, she must steer her party through political terrain that hasn’t been this treacherous since the last time the Washington Democrat chaired the DSCC in 2002, the first election after the September 11, 2001, attacks—when voters anointed President Bush and the GOP to lead the country on matters of national security. Senate Democrats suffered a net loss of one seat that year, giving up control to the GOP. Democrats won back the majority in 2006 and expanded it in 2008. But their edge was severely diminished in 2010 and now hangs in the balance in 2012.
“It’s a rough, rough year. There are a lot of things out of our control. As long as she does well at doing the things that she can control, then, win or lose, she’ll have the respect of her colleagues. But it’s always better to win in politics than lose,” said Rick Desimone, Murray’s former chief of staff who remains in her inner circle.
Six months into the election cycle, Murray has put her stamp on the campaign operation in two distinct ways.
First, she is attempting to reverse the course of 2010 when her party played defense in every competitive race. The DSCC is aggressively pushing to expand the playing field in red states, even if eyeing Indiana and Texas as potential pickups 17 months out from the election may seem far-fetched. “We had a large majority [in 2010], and we weren’t looking to Republican states to change from a Republican to a Democrat. I knew that in this cycle, we had to look at Republican seats and say, ‘How can I put this seat in play,’ ” Murray told National Journal.
Second, Murray is pressuring her Democratic colleagues in the Senate to assume responsibility for maintaining their majority. “When I was asked to take this on, I spoke directly to my caucus, and I told them that I would take on this task and I would be all in, but that every member of our caucus had to be all in,” Murray said. “I’ve been around a long time. This is the second time I’ve done this. I know how hard it is to get senators involved in this.”
Aides at the DSCC and in the leadership say that, so far, she has succeeded in getting the rank and file to do their part—which largely involves raising money. On any given day that the Senate is in session, as many as 16 senators are dialing for dollars in what is known internally as “power hour”—lunchtime at DSCC headquarters on Maryland Avenue, just around the corner from the Senate office buildings.
A key to Murray’s effectiveness, lawmakers and aides say, is that her colleagues like her and want to help her. In the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, when Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York headed the DSCC, some senators figured that he didn’t need much help. “I think a lot of people took fundraising for granted before: ‘Oh, Chuck will raise it,’ ” one leadership aide said. To date this cycle, the Democratic campaign committee’s fundraising figures are comparable to those of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Through April, the DSCC had raised $14.5 million and had $6 million cash-on-hand; the NRSC took in $14.6 million and had $1.3 million cash-on-hand.
But, as Republicans are quick to counter, money does not directly translate into winning, and Democrats have just 53 seats in the Senate, giving them little room for error in 2012. By anyone’s metric, a banner year for the party would be to simply maintain that control. Democrats’ best worst-case scenario is a maximum loss of three seats, providing that President Obama wins reelection, which would keep the Senate in Democratic control in a 50-50 split scenario, by virtue of Vice President Joe Biden’s tie-breaking vote.
This article appears in the June 11, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.