(Bloomberg) -- Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is making an election-year tradeoff to put the protection of vulnerable Democrats ahead of party unity in Congress.
With 10 Trump-state Democratic senators up for re-election in November, Schumer has stood aside as some of them broke partisan ranks on key votes this year, including to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and ease rules on regional and community banks.
That political calculation will figure prominently as the Senate considers President Donald Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director over the next two weeks. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, two of those vulnerable Democrats, have already announced they’ll support her even as other members of the party -- and at least two Republicans -- have lined up in opposition.
“For any leader, there are two jobs -- keeping the caucus together and also protecting your members who are up for election,” said Rodell Mollineau, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Schumer mentor. “Schumer is doing a good job at both.”
The November mid-term elections will determine control of Congress, and with the Senate narrowly split 51-49 in the Republicans’ favor, every competitive contest looms large for both parties. Democrats face one of the most politically skewed Senate election maps in history with 26 seats held by their party on the line, compared with just nine for Republicans.
That landscape puts Schumer, 67, on the front line of the party’s defense. His background suits him for the task.
Schumer’s four-decade rise in politics included four years as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he was the architect of the party’s successful 2006 effort to regain Senate control. With Schumer still at the helm in 2008, Democrats rode a wave of voter enthusiasm generated by Barack Obama and expanded their Senate majority.
In 2018, many of the same Democrats who ran in 2006 are up again, including Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Sherrod Brown of Ohio -- all in states that Trump won in 2016. That lets Schumer draw on existing knowledge of the abilities of each senator and the politics of their states.
“One of the reasons he’s such a good leader is he understands the politics of each of the senators’ states,” Nelson said last week.
Schumer has demonstrated his ability to hold Senate Democrats together on big-ticket items -- such as last year’s failed GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare and solid Democratic votes against the Republican tax cut legislation.
But Schumer has drawn heat from the more liberal wing of the party and from allied outside groups for not drawing a hard partisan line across the board. In December, he bowed to moderate Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in not using Democratic leverage to advance deportation protections for young immigrants when a year-end government shutdown loomed.
And when 17 Senate Democrats, including Donnelly and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, backed the banking legislation in March it sparked a public rift with progressive Democratic senators, particularly Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. One of Wall Street’s top critics, she called out Democrats who supported the bill in fundraising emails, in floor speeches, TV appearances and at news conferences.
Others complain Senate Democrats aren’t drawing sharp enough election-year differences with Republicans, and that’s made worse by party splits on issues like Pompeo’s confirmation, which got seven Democratic votes.
“When people feel like there’s no difference between the parties, that’s our biggest threat,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for MoveOn.org.
Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, scoffs at the idea that Trump-state Democrats can do much to sway voters with the small cluster of key votes with Republicans. He says they usually jump on board something once it’s clear it has the GOP votes to pass, anyway.
“Occasionally making the right vote when it doesn’t matter pales in comparison to the overwhelming regularity of bad votes when it does matter,” he said.
Mollineau notes the votes are just part of a broader record for these candidates that includes plenty of other work geared to the needs of their states.
“The votes aren’t going to stop super PACs and rival candidates from painting them in the worst way possible,” he said. “But they offer proof to voters that they kept their promise to look for opportunities to be bipartisan.”
After Trump held a rally in Indiana on Thursday, Donnelly sent out a statement saying he doesn’t work “for any president or political party.” Running for a second term against a pro-Trump Republican, the statement noted that in 2017 Donnelly “voted with President Trump 62% of the time.”
The looming Haspel confirmation vote could be the one instance where the support of Democrats is pivotal. GOP Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky says he’ll oppose her over her role in now-banned “enhanced interrogation” programs. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who also opposes her, is absent as he battles brain cancer.
With Manchin on board, other Democrats in the closest contests are in the crosshairs, including Heitkamp, McCaskill, Nelson and Donnelly. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is blasting out frequent statements asking where they stand and highlighting the veteran CIA operative’s background.
The senators who haven’t publicly announced a position say they’re considering Haspel’s testimony last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and some plan one-on-one meetings with her this week.
“There’s valid points being made on both sides,” McCaskill said. Concerns about Haspel’s role in a waterboarding program are valid, she said, but added that “people I respect think she’s a terrific leader. I have to weigh that out and I have to read the classified stuff myself about that dark moment in our history when that occurred and what her role was.”
Throughout, Schumer has been keeping a low profile. Asked whether he meets regularly with his most vulnerable incumbents to coach them, he said, “I see all of my colleagues all the time.”
“They make up their own minds,” he added. “No one does a better job of representing the people of those states. And the people of those states know it.”
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