Steve Bullock is interested in becoming president, not senator. But Chuck Schumer met with him anyway last month in New York in hopes of luring him into a campaign for the upper chamber.
The Montana governor expressed his distinct disinterest in pursuing a spot in the legislative branch, according to two people familiar with the meeting, but it’s the latest sign Schumer is doing all he can in his quest to finally become majority leader.
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A Democratic majority in the Senate, which once looked assured in the fall of 2016, has eluded the New York Democrat for two consecutive Senate cycles. Now, Schumer is recruiting high-profile Democrats in swing states and deep red territory — searching for any advantage he can find to net at least three seats he needs for his party to finally assume power.
“There’s a real thirst to win in 2020, and I’m getting good vibes,” Schumer said in an interview this month, exuding confidence between chomps on a Baby Ruth bar. “There’s going to be a fervor I think for taking back the Senate this election the way there was taking back the House in the last one.”
But the challenge of besting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in their long-running Senate chess match is daunting, and his early efforts have found mixed success.
Though Schumer landed top-tier Democratic recruit Mark Kelly in Arizona, Kelly may still face a primary against Rep. Ruben Gallego, who met with Schumer last month and is actively considering a run. In other swing states like Maine, North Carolina and Iowa, Democrats currently lack a marquee challenger to coalesce around and may face competitive primaries.
And besides Bullock, a few of Schumer’s most exciting prospects also have their eyes on the White House, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Texas Democrats Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, who is moving away from a Senate run for now.
Schumer said he’s not giving a hard sell to prospective candidates, but that he is laying out the advantages of joining his dogged pursuit of the majority: A chance to control the agenda, potentially with unified Democratic control of Washington in 2021.
“We’re finding that people are stepping up to the plate,” he explained. “What I tell anybody who I think would be a good candidate [is] that the Senate is a very good job. I don’t try to dissuade them from running for something else.”
Regardless of the number of headaches ahead for the famous political micromanager, Schumer is in a far better position than he was in 2018 when he was defending 10 seats in Trump country with a narrow path to the majority. Now, he’s on offense — yet how wide his party’s campaign will extend is yet to be determined.
Schumer and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) are working to get candidates who can transform races that Republicans might otherwise be easily favored to win. Schumer is aiming to persuade ex-fighter pilot Amy McGrath to take on McConnell in Kentucky, as well as Stacey Abrams to challenge Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).
Abrams electrified Democrats in her loss in Georgia’s gubernatorial race last year and met with Schumer in Washington in January and again in New York last week; in between, they spoke on the phone. Schumer and his allies told her that there are few Democratic paths to the majority in 2020 without flipping Georgia, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
Abrams has long coveted the governorship but is open to a Senate run and is likely to decide in the coming weeks. Abrams called Schumer “really persuasive” in a podcast interview with MSNBC host Chris Hayes earlier this week.
“He’d come stay in your house if he had to, to get you to run, to get you re-elected,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who briefly wavered on whether to run for reelection in 2018.
Schumer is clearly more comfortable this cycle after surviving last year’s brutal map for Democrats and a unified GOP government that circumvented his filibuster powers at nearly every turn. At the top of the interview, he lit a blaze in his ornate office’s fireplace and propped his feet up as he declared near-total victory over President Donald Trump in their clash over border wall funding.
And Schumer is willing to make things difficult for some of the Republicans whom he counts among his closest friends on the GOP side of the aisle. He reeled in former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison to begin exploring a campaign against Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime dealmaker who’s become one of Trump’s closest allies.
Harrison announced an exploratory committee Friday, Feb. 8 and got a phone call from Schumer the next day asking to meet the next time he was in Washington.
The two sat down for more than an hour earlier this month, Harrison said, and he made the case to the Democratic leader that South Carolina could be a competitive race despite its deeply Republican tilt. Harrison asked for support from the national party behind his run, and said Schumer delivered the message, “You’re my guy.”
“His goal is to get back into the majority, and I think he’s going to be very aggressive in terms of that goal,” Harrison said of their conversation, which was first reported by McClatchy.
Graham said he’s going to “disappoint” Schumer if Democrats truly venture into the Palmetto State.
“I like Chuck. He’s an honest guy and we work together, but it’s a business. I hope he’s never majority leader and he hopes I’ll lose,” Graham said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a fierce political rival who works out alongside Schumer in the Senate gym, is also being targeted by Democrats. Cornyn cracked that after coming up short in 2016 and 2018, Democrats “ought to throw him overboard” if Schumer can’t get at least 50 seats this time.
“It’s kill or be killed around here,” Cornyn said of Schumer’s plot to oust him. “Work where you can with your colleagues, recognizing that probably, given the opportunity, they will try to end your political career.”
Whether Schumer will be able to expand the Senate map beyond competitive races in Arizona, North Carolina, Maine, Iowa and Colorado will depend on whether his pitch resonates and whether some of the Democrats’ presidential hopefuls realize a Senate seat is more attainable.
A candidate like Bullock may see a moderate lane to the presidential nomination, but it’s a long shot. And he’s probably the only Democrat in Montana who can run a real race against Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
Abrams could similarly change the dynamic of the Georgia Senate race, as could O’Rourke and Castro in Texas and McGrath in Kentucky. It’s an effort reminiscent of the last time Schumer flipped the Senate from red to blue in 2006, when he found candidates like Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri as the DSCC chairman.
“Chuck puts pressure on himself all the time to be as good as he possibly can, the maximum. I suspect that he has talked to everybody, including Bullock, Hickenlooper, the works,” said Tester, who is close to Schumer and ran the Democratic campaign arm in 2016.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said it’s likely that some of the presidential aspirants eventually decide to pursue Senate campaigns, which could invigorate the party in states that Democrats had written off in previous elections.
“We anticipate it will be a good year,” said Stabenow, a close Schumer ally.
Of course, Schumer has shared similar assessments in the past, declaring in 2016 a “Democratic generation” was building in U.S. politics as he appeared a shoo-in to be majority leader. That didn’t happen. Democrats lost a net two seats last year even as they defended six of their 10 incumbents in Trump states.
That recent history in mind, Schumer doesn’t want to appear too bullish — already eyeing 2022 even as he firms up his candidates in 2020.
“It’s better than last time,” Schumer said of his prospects in 2020. “It’s not as good as two years from now. But it’s good.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.