“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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This article appears in the June 11, 2011, edition of National Journal.