The story was similar in Washington, Michigan, and Florida. In the top six races targeted by Republicans, the Democratic incumbents didn’t retire and their toughest adversaries declined to run. “Every one of the six candidates faced down their major opponent,” Schumer boasts.
Schumer’s early success at preventing retirements and strengthening his most vulnerable colleagues puts Senate Democrats in their strongest defensive position since the 2000 election. Their most at-risk seat is in Minnesota, though Washington’s Senator Maria Cantwell is also facing a spirited challenge. In six other states targeted by the GOP—Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maryland, and Vermont—Democrats currently look safe. This surprisingly strong start has allowed Schumer to play offense and concentrate his firepower on the six states Democrats recite in their dreams: Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Montana, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.
Schumer has spent an inordinate amount of his time recruiting candidates to challenge the five vulnerable incumbent Republicans in these states (Tennessee has an open seat). He set the tone early last year in Pennsylvania when he risked the wrath of pro-choice Democrats by begging pro-lifer Bob Casey Jr. to run against Senator Rick Santorum, whom Democrats call “our Daschle,” referring to the zeal with which Republicans attacked and defeated Tom Daschle in 2004. “I must admit there’s probably a degree of payback,” says Schumer. In 2005, every poll showed Casey as Santorum’s toughest opponent, but he was planning to run for governor instead. Meanwhile, a pro-choice Democrat, Barbara Hafer, was already in the race. Schumer plotted with outgoing governor Ed Rendell, who persuaded Hafer not to run. Schumer then worked on Casey, luring him into the race with assurances that he could win and a promise that he would be rewarded with the DSCC’s best campaign manager. (“J.B. has a stable of these guys,” says Schumer, who allocates them according to need.) Schumer knew that the full fury of pro-choice Democrats would rain down on him when Casey announced his candidacy. But that was exactly the point. By pissing off the party’s most loyal supporters, Schumer sent a message that he was serious about winning, one that rippled into other states and helped persuade reluctant recruiting targets to run. “I said, ‘Hey, we have to win!’ If we had 58 seats, maybe you wouldn’t do this, but our back is against the wall,” Schumer says.
Casey now enjoys double-digit leads over Santorum, who is surely the Republican senator most likely to be unemployed come November. Santorum dodged Bush on a recent presidential visit to the state, something unthinkable for a Republican senator two years ago. And instead of running strictly on national security, Santorum has been forced to woo suburban women by softening his religious-conservative image. One of his first ads, “Dreamers,” stars his 14-year-old daughter praising her father’s commitment to education.
In Missouri, a onetime swing state that has become redder and redder in the Bush era, the plan to beat incumbent Jim Talent called for finding a Democrat who could reconnect with the state’s rural, religious population outside the Democratic islands of Kansas City and St. Louis. Once Schumer decided that state auditor Claire McCaskill was that candidate, he courted her with all the ardor of a love-struck teenager. There was rarely a day he didn’t talk to her or send her something. “The No. 1 word that I can use to describe a successful recruiter is relentless,” Schumer says. “You just have to keep calling and calling and calling.”
State by state, Schumer’s operatives have relentlessly spread anti-GOP stories, “taking little things and beating them to death.”
He learned that McCaskill’s new husband, Joseph Shepard, was the problem. So when Schumer heard that the whole McCaskill family would be in London at the same time as the Schumers, he sought them out and organized a dinner, planting himself beside Shepard, a wealthy businessman who invested a good chunk of his real-estate fortune into his wife’s losing 2004 campaign for governor, an office they both still covet. Schumer weaned them off their obsession with the gubernatorial race and assured Shepard that his wife’s Senate job would still have her home to him at a reasonable hour every night, a somewhat dubious promise considering Schumer’s wife lives in New York and most weekdays in Washington he works until midnight. But within two weeks of the London dinner, McCaskill decided to run. “You have to gently envelop the candidate and show them that the Senate is just an incredibly good job,” Schumer says, explaining the recruiting of McCaskill. “I instinctively felt that if we did it with our families, we could make it happen.”
The Missouri race is crucial to understanding the challenge Democrats face this year. Bush’s approval rating may be in the thirties nationally, but it’s higher in Missouri. Washington Democrats may talk of censure, but McCaskill’s campaign wants nothing to do with any of that. Recently, McCaskill has pointedly distanced herself from Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton, and, though pro-choice, has proclaimed, “I am not for abortion.” Races like Missouri will force Senate Democrats in Washington to be extremely vigilant about how bold their agenda gets this year and how much Bush-bashing they do. Although “check on Bush” is the mantra Schumer uses to pull money out of Democratic donors, it’s not necessarily a winning message for all his candidates. In essence, national Democrats can move only as far left as their most conservative Senate candidate in the six target states, four of which were carried by Bush in 2000 and 2004.