Democrats have a dream. They dream that they will wake up on November 8 and that West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, the 88-year-old antiwar firebrand, will be in charge of appropriating every dollar spent in Iraq. They dream that Patrick Leahy, the Vermont senator who led the effort against Samuel Alito, will be the man deciding which Bush judges get considered. They dream that a senator from South Dakota named Tim Johnson will be running the now-dormant Ethics Committee, aggressively investigating GOP lobbyists looting their way through Washington. They dream of a vote on a minimum-wage increase and public hearings on global warming. And Democrats soothe themselves to sleep every night with visions of beating six years’ worth of secrets out of the Bush administration—on pre-9/11 intelligence, the Plame affair, Katrina, Dubai Ports World, Halliburton—through the fearsome power of the subpoena.
Democrats dream that they will once again matter in Washington. In short, they dream of taking control of the United States Senate.
In an election year that offers Democrats a target-rich environment, no goal is more coveted than that of reclaiming the upper chamber of Congress. Democrats are poised to take back governor’s mansions scattered from coast to coast, but those races are local ones and will have almost no impact on Bush or his agenda. The party needs a net gain of fifteen seats to regain the House of Representatives, and while that is starting to look less impossible than it did just a few months ago, deftly gerrymandered districts serve as powerful structural impediments to a Democratic takeover.
The Senate is different. It has 44 Democrats and one independent who votes with them. Because ties are broken by Dick Cheney, six seats need to change hands to bring the body under Democratic control. Unlike reclaiming the House, or the far-off presidential race, it is a goal that seems tangible, achievable. Any Democrat in Washington can rattle off the six states of greatest opportunity—Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Montana, Rhode Island, and Tennessee—and explain how each can be won. And if Election Day were tomorrow, according to the latest polls, the Democrats would stand a reasonable chance of sweeping all six. Such a colossal victory would spell the end of the Bush era.
The man orchestrating the Senate takeover is New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer, who is the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has already managed the unlikely task of out-fund-raising his Republican counterparts.
Despite the intensity of this moment, Schumer has a disarmingly casual air when I meet him at his Capitol Hill office. He’s kicked off his shoes and sits with his feet propped up on a coffee table. Aides march in and out without knocking, always addressing him as Chuck. One tosses him an apple across the room.
Although he has never been as captivated by the trappings of the Senate as some of his colleagues, and hasn’t quite brushed off the scrappiness of his eighteen years in the House, Schumer brings to the DSCC a mastery of the two basics of modern politics: money and media. He is, famously, the Senate’s greatest fund-raiser and greatest TV hound, important qualifications for his new job. Schumer thought about running for governor this year but instead leveraged the threat of leaving the Senate to secure a spot on the powerful Finance Committee, which writes the nation’s tax laws and, not insignificant, is a perch that puts him in constant contact with the political donor class. “That was my dream,” he says. “I always wanted to be on the Finance Committee.”
Agreeing to run the DSCC was a tougher call. The job is not always considered a great gig for a senator. Schumer calls it “a lemon.” But he took it, he insists, leaning forward and getting animated for the first time in our interview, because the GOP coalition of what he delicately calls “theocrats” and “economic royalists” is on the cusp of total victory in Washington. “The only barrier between these people and the America we’ve all come to know and love are the 45 Democrats in the Senate. And if we were to lose three seats, which looked very possible in December of 2004, it would be gone, because the magic number in the Senate is 41, not 51. So I said I had to take the job.”
On the Republican side, the lemon was awarded to North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole. As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, she is the anti-Schumer. He relishes politics and is his own best consultant, while Dole can hardly get dressed in the morning without an adviser. Schumer’s most rehearsed lines seem to be off the cuff, while Dole’s every utterance is a robotic drone. Schumer envelops the press with love. Dole rarely submits to on-the-record interviews. He has shattered fund-raising records. She has failed to keep pace.