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Magazine / Senate

In Her Shoes

Keeping control of the Senate in 2012 may be a hill too steep for Democrats. But Patty Murray is trying.

Clear-eyed: “I know how hard it is to get senators involved in this,” Murray says.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

photo of Susan Davis
June 9, 2011

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.

“All In”

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.

Infographic

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.

Of the nine races considered the most competitive, Democrats hold seven of the seats and Republicans hold two. Retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad’s seat in North Dakota is already an anticipated loss, allowing for a two-seat margin of error if Democrats do not pick up any GOP-held seats. Republicans consider Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., the most vulnerable incumbent this cycle, arguably narrowing the margin of error to one seat unless Democrats are able to make inroads in Republican territory.

Murray classifies GOP-held seats in Indiana, Nevada, and Texas as potential takeaways, but nonpartisan election analysts currently consider only one of those, Nevada, to be competitive. Amid intraparty discord, Democrats have also yet to coalesce around a challenger to Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, a state that Obama carried in 2008 by 26 points and one that will be critical for Democrats’ efforts to maintain their majority. Murray has remained characteristically tight-lipped about the DSCC’s Massachusetts recruiting woes. “We believe that state is one that we will win,” she told reporters recently.

The Arizona field also remains unresolved as Democrats await further word on the recovery of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from a January 8 shooting. Party strategists privately concede that they do not expect Giffords to mount a Senate campaign, but respect for her has kept other potential candidates from stepping in. The silence is giving the Republican front-runner, Rep. Jeff Flake, an edge in the open-seat race in a state that already leans Republican. Democrats note, however, that the candidate filing date to qualify for Arizona’s August 2012 primary is nearly a year away.

The Medicare Advantage?

The situation isn’t totally gloomy. In many respects, Democrats have reason to feel better about their 2012 prospects today than they did at the start of the 112th Congress, just five months ago, when Republicans were riding high on the midterm wave that gave them a House majority and cost Democrats six Senate seats. “I think that anybody who looks at 2010 November and says 2012 November is going to be exactly like that is dead wrong,” Murray told NJ. She readily admits that some of her party’s best advantages are the opportunities that the GOP hands them. “The Republicans in the House have made the best case possible for why my candidates and the Democrats have a better agenda,” she said. “That’s helped nationally. We’ve seen it in our fundraising; we’ve seen it in our grassroots.”

The House Republicans’ budget, which includes a controversial plan to alter the Medicare system for Americans younger than 55 by turning it into a voucher program, has been a rhetorical boon to Democrats on the campaign trail. On May 24, Democrats won an upset victory in a special election for a House seat in New York, partly because of the Medicare issue. On that day, the DSCC’s website recorded more unique user visits than on any other day in the past four years, because of a solicitation to sign an online petition to support Democrats on Medicare. The issue has put Republican Senate candidates such as Heather Wilson in New Mexico, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and George Allen in Virginia in uncomfortable positions—or, as Murray would call it, “on defense.” The DSCC is using the Medicare issue against GOP Senate incumbents, including Nevada’s Dean Heller and Indiana’s Richard Lugar, who voted in favor of the House GOP plan.

In some key races, the DSCC has already solidified behind candidates, such as former Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia, to head off expensive and divisive primaries. “What’s been most gratifying to me is the people who are saying yes,” Murray said, citing Kaine. Democrats have also benefited from Republicans’ weak candidate recruitment in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and other states where the incumbent Democrat could be vulnerable against a top-tier challenger. In some respects, 2010 was a high-water year for the GOP in terms of recruitment. The six seats that Republicans netted left thin benches for statewide candidates this cycle.

Additionally, 2012 is a presidential reelection year, which will aid Democrats’ efforts to turn out a lot of their base voters who stayed home in 2010. Of course, the Republican nominee will also affect the down-ballot races, but at this stage, the GOP has no clear front-runner for the nomination and only tepid enthusiasm among Republican voters for the presidential field. Of the states with the nine most competitive Senate races, Obama carried five—Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wisconsin—four of them by double digits. If the Obama campaign can reassemble the coalition that elected him in 2008, those voters are all but guaranteed to vote Democratic down the ballot.

Although Murray sounds optimistic when discussing money, recruitment, and motivating the grassroots, when asked if she believes that Democrats will keep the majority, she sidesteps the question. “I will tell you this: This is a very tough time for a country,” she said. “That sets up a difficult landscape for anyone up for reelection, and we have more people up for reelection than Republicans do.”

“A Quiet Persistence”

If Murray is confident in her candidates, Senate Democrats are confident in Murray, even though she is the lowest-profile player in the Senate leadership orbit. “She is a terribly underappreciated political thinker or operative. Her whole life proves this, but it’s not universally recognized,” said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who was executive director at the DSCC under Murray during the 2002 cycle.

Although much attention in the party’s Senate leadership circles focuses on the potential for a fight between Majority Whip Dick Durbin and Schumer when the day comes for Reid to exit, Murray has carved out a niche as someone with quiet influence. “I think she is an equal with Durbin and Schumer,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is up for reelection and has worked with Murray in committee and in her role at the DSCC. “Patty’s always checking in, asking how things are going and making sure we’re on track,” Tester said. “Whether you’re talking politics or you’re talking policy, she is 100 percent all the time.”

“Patty has a quiet persistence,” Schumer says. “It’s not every senator who really understands the average person and what makes them tick—which is very important in running Senate races and recruiting people—and Patty has an innate understanding of that. She goes back each weekend she can to Whidbey Island and talks to people in the supermarket there and gets great insights.”

Some lawmakers enjoy meteoric rises on Capitol Hill, but Murray’s Senate climb over the past two decades has been slow and steady. At this point in her career, only 22 senators have served longer than she has, and that number will drop to no more than 17 in the next Congress because five more-senior senators are retiring.

When she was first elected as a political neophyte in 1992, Murray’s more experienced, predominantly male colleagues didn’t give her much credit for political gravitas or policy chops. She has labored to distinguish herself on two policy fronts: veterans issues (she is the daughter of a World War II veteran) and appropriations.

Murray is an unabashed advocate of steering federal money to her home state. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she sought 191 projects in 2010 that added up to $223 million, ranking her 11th out of 100 senators in earmark requests. She is a fan of federal spending to the point that she was one of a handful of senators who voted against two short-term funding bills earlier this year to keep the federal government operating—not because they did not cut enough spending, as the Republicans who opposed them contended, but because they cut too much.

Stylistically, Murray prefers to operate outside of the publicity scrum. Aides and allies insist that she is not media averse but media indifferent. “She is not part of the Washington scene. She really does want to go home as often as she can. She’s not into the glitz and the glamour and the Kennedy Center and the cocktail parties,” said Todd Webster, a former Murray press staffer who is now chief of staff to freshman Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del.

In public, Murray is poker-faced and often hard to read, even by her colleagues. One Senate Democratic leadership aide contends that her unflappability is an effective tool. “It’s almost like senators try to please Patty because they can never really tell if she’s happy with them or not,” the aide quipped. Behind closed doors, aides and lawmakers describe Murray as calm, gracious, and—occasionally—funny. She has a natural power base among the 11 other Democratic women senators, who often work closely together on policy matters and messaging. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is the unofficial dean of the Senate Democratic women, but Murray, bolstered by the implicit support of her female colleagues, is arguably the chamber’s most influential woman.

One factor that has buffered Murray’s reputation on the Hill is her staff, which is highly regarded. She is replicating that advantage at the DSCC. Without prompting, nearly everyone interviewed by National Journal cited Murray’s ability to surround herself with strong staff members. One such aide is Guy Cecil, a veteran Democratic operative who ran Bennet’s successful 2010 Colorado reelection campaign; Cecil is now executive director at the DSCC.

Like Murray, this is a return trip for Cecil, 36, who served as political director during the 2006 cycle when Democrats won control of the chamber. “If you want to talk about recruiting wins, I’d put Guy on that list,” said Mike Spahn, Murray’s chief of staff. Asked to describe her operational philosophy at the campaign committee, Murray replied, “I have really great people who work for me.”

If she beats the odds and Democrats retain control of the Senate, it will be another first in a political career that has been punctuated by breakthroughs. In 1992, she became the first woman elected to the Senate from Washington in the so-called Year of the Woman. Putting a positive riff on a slight paid to her by a male politician, she coined one of the more memorable campaign slogans in modern political history, running as a “mom in tennis shoes.” A decade later, Murray made history as the first woman to run Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. In January, she became the first woman to chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, she has also served in the Senate leadership since 2007; as conference secretary, the party’s fourth-ranking post, she has been an able floor operator and has served as one of Reid’s lieutenants. Her colleagues share a sense that Murray’s stock is on the rise.

“She constantly wants to do more, but I don’t know if she has a fixed idea of what that is,” Desimone said of his former boss’s Senate ambitions. “She’s someone who wants to keep her options open. She is a relatively young person for where she is in the Senate, and if I had to lay odds, she’s running again in Washington state; so, yeah, the idea that she could play a larger role at helping guide the direction of the Senate is one that has probably crossed her mind.” Murray is characteristically coy about whether she sees herself moving up the leadership ladder, saying only, “I’ve been fortunate I’ve been given opportunities to have a louder voice.”

Maintaining Democratic control of the Senate would be an epic victory for Murray. It is unclear how a loss could affect her role. Webster, who worked for Murray during the 2002 election cycle when Democrats suffered the one-seat loss that cost them their majority, noted that she nevertheless continued to rise in the leadership. “When the long knives came out” after the defeat, “none of them were pointed at her,” he said. Will the same be true this time if Democrats do not retain control of the Senate? “I think there will be lots of blame to go around if the Democrats lose the Senate, and I don’t know where Patty Murray will fall on that spectrum,” Desimone said. “I assume she will be somewhere on that spectrum, but there are a lot of other factors at play, for sure.”

Murray said she simply can’t link her DSCC role to her own political fortunes. “If my brain worked like that, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today,” she said. “When I ran for the Senate in 1992, I was literally a ‘mom in tennis shoes,’ and I was told by no one I could win. I did not look at taking the chair of DSCC because of a risk to me personally. I took it because I felt it was the right thing to do for my country, and that is how I make decisions.” So maybe Murray is still just a mom in tennis shoes—but with a new suit of battle armor.

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