Octogenarian Robert Byrd was flirting with retirement, and keeping him on became an especially crucial mission. Once a reliably Democratic state, West Virginia has, through the Bush years, grown steadily more conservative. In 2000, Bush captured it with 52 percent of the vote, and in 2004 with 56 percent. If Byrd had left this year, the seat would almost surely have been lost to Republican congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, a young up-and-comer in the state whose father was governor. Schumer and other Democrats persuaded Byrd to stick around partly by promising him that they would do most of his fund-raising for him. Schumer, Reid, Dick Durbin, and former majority leader Tom Daschle all held early fund-raisers for Byrd to convince him they were serious. By September, with almost $2 million banked, Byrd announced his reelection bid. Similar horse-trading persuaded his four red-state colleagues to do the same.
“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!’ ”
Schumer had less success keeping all his blue-state senators. Three are retiring. Independent Jim Jeffords is leaving, though his Vermont seat is likely to be won by a Democrat. Maryland’s Paul Sarbanes is also quitting, producing a long-shot opportunity for Republicans in that state. More worrisome for Democrats is holding onto the seat of Minnesota’s Mark Dayton. Schumer’s relentlessness helped push Dayton out. Best known as the only senator to vacate his Washington office last fall after a vague terrorism threat, Dayton retired partly because he couldn’t stomach the fund-raising pace demanded by Schumer. “Every time I’d see Chuck Schumer . . . he’d say, ‘Raise money, Mark. Go raise money. Raise money,’ ” Dayton told his hometown paper after announcing his retirement. According to sources close to Schumer, the senator privately believed Dayton was a sitting duck who had lost the hunger to serve. He wanted Dayton to quit, and he quickly recruited a less-vulnerable replacement. “That was the one retirement they were actually happy about,” says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for The Cook Political Report.
In exchange for helping candidates raise money, Schumer makes a demand: no amateurs. Anybody who wants DSCC help must have a campaign manager, a finance director, and a communications director personally approved by Schumer and his aides. “To preapprove the top three spots is about as hands-on as I’ve ever heard,” says Duffy.
But the truth is that an incumbent senator’s great hope is that he never has to use that campaign staff. “The goal is not to win your race,” says Phil Singer. “The goal is not to have a race.” And the first year of Schumer’s DSCC service was devoted to making sure that vulnerable Democrats faced no serious opposition in 2006. Through a mix of luck, heavy fund-raising, hardball politics, Elizabeth Dole’s anemic performance, and a major assist from Bush’s deteriorating political situation, the top Republicans in state after state decided not to challenge weak Democrats. In North Dakota, Republicans tried to get popular governor John Hoeven to run against Democratic senator Kent Conrad. “He voted against the war,” says Schumer, explaining how worried he was about Conrad, one of his marginals, “and against the anti-gay-marriage amendment. And Kent, amazingly enough, to his everlasting credit, was the 34th vote blocking a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, which would have been the first time the Bill of Rights had ever been amended. In North Dakota! That would have been hard to do in any state.”
Bush twisted Hoeven’s arm aboard Air Force One and fêted him during a two-night sleepover at the White House, but Hoeven declined to jump into the race. Conrad now has $3 million in the bank and no serious Republican opponent.
In Nebraska, another vulnerable red-stater, Ben Nelson, wanted to scare off a challenge from Governor Mike Johanns. Nelson came to Schumer and Reid in late 2004 and told them that if he could raise $1 million in one month, Johanns wouldn’t challenge him. Schumer personally tapped his own base of New York donors, many of whom had never heard of Nelson. They coughed up tens of thousands of dollars. In his last Senate election campaign, Nelson raised a total of $50,395 from New Yorkers; this cycle, he’s already netted $130,500. His ratio of Nebraska money to New York money used to be thirteen to one. Now it’s three to one. Sure enough, a month after the fund-raising blitz began, and with $1 million in the bank, Johanns decided to join the Bush administration as secretary of Agriculture, and other top Republicans in the state declined to enter the race.
In West Virginia, nudging Capito out of the race became a matter of some urgency. Byrd is in no shape to campaign around the state. One of his first radio interviews after he announced he was running turned into a rambling, semi-coherent soliloquy about how much he loved the people of West Virginia. So Byrd, Schumer, and the DSCC, working with West Virginia’s Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, sought to scare off potential sources of Republican funding, threatening and browbeating state donors into not giving a dime to Capito. Their efforts may have had only a marginal impact, but combined with Bush’s slipping popularity and the NRSC’s paltry fund-raising, that did the trick. Capito decided not to run.