In another year, her mistakes wouldn’t matter much because much of the NRSC’s political work would actually be done by Karl Rove—she’d just be the one with her name on the stationery. But 2005 happened to be the year Rove was waylaid by the Plame-leak investigation, forcing Dole to run the committee on her own and making Schumer shine by comparison.
Part of the reason Schumer took the job is that he was able to join Minority Leader Harry Reid’s Senate leadership team, which allows him to craft the party’s message with an eye toward the Senate races. He has embraced that job as if he’d spent his career representing Dubuque rather than Brooklyn. He is obsessed with the health of what he calls his “marginals,” red-state Democrats who live in fear of being too closely associated with, well, New York liberals like Schumer. He treats the marginals like fragile vases in constant danger of being knocked off their pedestals.
Schumer considers every Washington debate in terms of how it will affect the marginals. “There were some in our caucus that wanted to let the Patriot Act lapse,” he tells me. “I said that I think we got to change it, and I’ll work to change it, but to let it lapse would be a disaster, particularly for our Democrats in red states. You know, when I go to a drawing room in Manhattan and they say, ‘You got to appeal to our base!’ I say, ‘There is no base in North Dakota!’ ”
When Schumer took the helm of the DSCC last year, he became personally immersed in the weeds of the operation, hiring his own team, messing around in primaries, recruiting candidates, and personally lecturing them about how to run a campaign using what he calls the Schumer Method. That’s his secret recipe for his own New York victory, and he is now franchising it out. He instructs his candidates to very carefully define the prototypical swing voters in their home states—for him, it’s the imaginary Joe and Ilene O’Reilly from Massapequa—and then craft a campaign to meet their needs. To reach these local Joes and Ilenes regularly, he also coaches his candidates to get home and hit every media market in their state at least once a month. “The head of the DSCC used to be just a fund-raiser,” says Schumer’s communications director, Phil Singer. “He’s become more of a strategist and tactician.”
Schumer hired a top party fund-raiser, Julianna Smoot, and a well-respected political director, Guy Cecil. To do press, he brought in Singer, a wound-up master opposition researcher and favorite of Washington reporters, who looks like a trim, 30-year-old version of Schumer. He installed J. B. Poersch as executive director. A dead-ringer for the late comedian Chris Farley, Poersch is a coveted operative whose last stint was running the Kerry campaign in Ohio, the Waterloo for Democrats in 2004. After that searing near-victory, Poersch, like Schumer, gravitated to the DSCC out of a sense of foreboding about what would happen if the Democrats lost three more seats. “This is the place of last refuge,” he says.
Even with this new team in place, the DSCC was still weighted down by the past, including $4 million in debt. Nothing is more depressing to donors than being called after a humiliating defeat and begged to pay off the old credit-card bill. “They hated that,” Schumer says. “Because they were paying for past mistakes.” Instead, Schumer and Reid demanded that Democratic senators themselves retire the debt. In a month, the DSCC was solvent.
And still things looked fairly grim. Democrats hold eighteen seats up for reelection this year, while Republicans hold fifteen. Most sitting senators glide to victory; their reelection rate is 80 percent. Open seats are where the genuine battles tend to be waged. In 2002 and 2004, the greatest predictor of who would win a competitive Senate race was how well Bush had fared in the state. Compounding the problem for Democrats in 2004 was that several red-state senators, some elected decades earlier, retired and were replaced with fresh new Republicans. In 2002, Democrats lost seats in Georgia and Missouri. In 2004, they lost another Georgia seat and ones in South Dakota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Since there are 31 red states and 19 blue states, this is a very unhappy trend for Senate Democrats.
Schumer’s first job was to put a finger in this dike. He badgered the five Democrats up for reelection this year in red states—New Mexico, North Dakota, Florida, Nebraska, and West Virginia—not to retire. One by one, Schumer and Reid sat down with these five men and played Let’s Make a Deal. “We basically begged them to stay,” says Schumer. “They came to Harry’s office and we said, ‘What do you need?’ ” Some got a seat on a prized committee. Others received assurances that their pet legislative issues or pork-barrel requests would be given priority. And everyone was promised that the DSCC would help out aggressively with fund-raising and that Schumer would talk up the candidates to his donors.