The path that Chuck Schumer hopes will one day lead to controlling the Senate began more than a dozen years ago, when the New Yorker relentlessly recruited personable Democrats in rural, conservative states.
While the party’s strength has consolidated to cities and the liberal coasts, Schumer’s early work cultivating those relationships with members who are in touch with America’s heartland not only gave the party a majority in 2006 but gives Democrats an outside chance to take it back this November.
Or, in a more likely scenario, it keeps the Senate’s margins close enough to give the party a good shot in 2020.
“Chuck Schumer oversaw the DSCC at a time when we had major gains in red states and won the majority,” said J.B. Poersch, a top Schumer aide who now oversees Senate Majority PAC. “Chuck’s campaign acumen and leadership had a lot to do with that.”
Ten Democratic senators are up for reelection in states that Donald Trump won in 2016, four of whom first ran in 2006 when Schumer led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Four more joined the body within the next six years as Schumer himself became a top lieutenant in caucus leadership.
More than half of those senators described Schumer in interviews last week as an ally who lets them operate autonomously both on the Hill and in their home states.
“The beauty of Chuck is Chuck lets us be the kind of senators we need to be for our states,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, whose state Trump carried by 36 points in 2016.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montanan who chaired the DSCC in 2016, praised Schumer for “keeping the caucus together” while “never” pressuring him on a vote.
“I think one of Chuck’s strengths is he lets you do what you do,” Tester said. “And in my particular case, I can just tell you that there’s not a lot of pressure applied. I tell Chuck how I’m going to vote and why, and we move on.”
Schumer is also known to help red-state Democrats get pet projects tucked into massive deals. But his expertise extends beyond the Hill. Senators and their aides described Schumer as a political animal, a phone hog incessantly checking in on the latest twists and turns of the campaign.
That political nature will be greatly tested this cycle thanks to the large number of seats his party is defending and the small number of Republican seats up for grabs—a result of national Democratic success in 2006 and 2012. Schumer told reporters last week he was optimistic that Democrats would see similar success this November. But keeping the deficit slim would set the party up for 2020, when twice as many Republicans as Democrats will be on the ballot at the same time as Trump.
His colleagues say he’s up to the task. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said Schumer has been “a great ally” since Casey first ran in 2006 and is still “helping us win” as he seeks a third term.
One senior aide to a moderate Democrat said Schumer boasts an “encyclopedic” knowledge of states’ politics and answers moderate members’ calls “more often than he doesn’t,” including spontaneous ones—on his flip phone.
“As he is a veteran of the chairmanship of the DSCC, [he] has always taken incredible interest in politics as well as policy,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, from the class of 2012. “And now as leader, I think that continues.”
“There are people who just eat and breathe this,” she added. “He is one such person.”
In her memoir Plenty Ladylike, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri calls Schumer “one of my closest friends in the Senate.” Schumer’s recruitment of her began not long after she narrowly lost a race for governor in 2004. McCaskill recalled that she wanted to make clear at a Democratic retreat in Nantucket that she wouldn’t “put any of our personal money” in the Senate contest, among other demands, to which Schumer replied, “Claire, you negotiate like you’re from Brooklyn.”
The relentless recruiter wasn’t discouraged. When Schumer realized that McCaskill’s family vacation in London coincided with his, he organized a dinner to convince her husband that being in the Senate “wouldn’t foreclose a family life,” Schumer wrote in his book Positively American.
At a low point in her 2012 campaign—when McCaskill disclosed that her husband’s company did not pay personal property taxes on its private plane—McCaskill wrote that she told Schumer, “Maybe I need to resign.” The future Democratic leader “babysat” her as he brainstormed “all of the ramifications and potential repairs” of the burgeoning scandal, she wrote.
But McCaskill put some distance between the two during a brief interview with National Journal.
“I spend a lot of my time telling him to stay out of Missouri and leave me alone,” she said. “My view of issues are not always in line with Senator Schumer’s. I mean, he’s really smart and he works hard to keep our caucus united, and I respect that, but he and I don’t always see eye to eye on everything. Frankly, I don’t need him. I know Missouri; he doesn’t. I don’t need him in Missouri.”
Those public sentiments are common among red-state Democrats as Republicans hope to use any connection to the New York Democrat as a cudgel. At a rally in Nashville last month, Trump referred to former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen as “an absolute total tool” of Schumer, who recruited him into the race to replace GOP Sen. Bob Corker.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee ran a radio ad in February tying Heitkamp to “her liberal boss Chuck Schumer” for an apparent “high five” on the Senate floor after she voted against a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.
Sen. Joe Manchin said he doesn’t “talk to [Schumer] about my campaign” because “he’s not from West Virginia.” Manchin added that he “can’t think of any” time Schumer asked Manchin how he was voting on upcoming bills.
“The caucus has nothing to do with me,” Manchin said. “I vote the way I think is good for West Virginia.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly laughed off questions about the leader’s whip strategy and role in his campaign. “He has nothing to do with how I vote,” Donnelly said. “I just do what’s right for Indiana.”
Tester added that there are “certainly things we don’t agree on” because Schumer’s home state of New York is “a little different than Montana.”