Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats aren’t changing course, despite all those second-guessing them.
Their vulnerable incumbents were free to ignore liberal orthodoxy over the past two years, but at least three red-state Democrats still went down hard in the midterms. And as 2020 looms, the party faces a steep challenge in clawing back to the Senate majority.
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But Democrats are finding only a bright side in Tuesday’s results, and are showing no sign of shifting strategies to try to shore up their performance in states President Donald Trump carried. In fact, they took heart in a GOP that’s “sliding in the suburbs,” as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put it to reporters in his home state on Friday.
Schumer stayed characteristically sunny this week in his first post-election chat with reporters. He blasted Trump for portraying the GOP’s Senate pickups as offsetting its House losses, but made no new vows to amp up policy fights with the president.
And the New York Democrat insisted his party did “much better than expected,” despite having suggested in June that they could pull off a long-shot takeover of the upper chamber.
“Having a Democratic House puts our caucus in a much better position when it comes to both holding the president accountable and getting things done,” Schumer told POLITICO in a statement. “As in the last two years, the secret to our success will be unity.”
Schumer can afford to be comfortable: He maintains his members’ trust and faces no serious threat to his leadership. Even the liberal activists who occasionally gripe that he’s not being aggressive enough in challenging Trump aren’t calling for his head. Additionally, if Democrats can eke out victories in Arizona and Florida races that remain too close to call, Schumer will hold Republican gains to a net of one seat.
If Democratic senators recognize the brutal two years ahead of them, as McConnell uses his heftier majority to shut down House Democratic priorities and steamroll through more judicial confirmations, they’re not letting their anxiety show.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) pointed to the three conservative states that voted to expand Medicaid last week as just one example of voters embracing his party’s policies.
“Look at Medicaid expansion and voting rights and minimum wage — our ideas are popular,” he said. “Economic populism and health care are winners for us.”
Senate Republicans are equally confident that their party has locked in an enduring majority on the strength of the most favorable midterm map in more than a decade.
The GOP has to defend 22 seats in 2020, but only about a half-dozen of those can be considered instantly competitive without a strong Democratic recruit. Republicans are also expected to mount serious efforts against two Democratic incumbents, Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama and Gary Peters of Michigan.
After picking up more seats on Tuesday, “I do think we’ve got a great chance of holding onto the majority for years to come,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who is running to lead the Senate GOP’s campaign arm for the next Congress.
Schumer’s tough spot will be made only more difficult as multiple members of his caucus jockey for position ahead of the 2020 presidential primaries. His role as Washington’s most powerful Democrat will also be diminished; with the House turning blue, Schumer will have to compete with a Democratic speaker for the microphone he’s relished using over the past two years.
Even so, his Democrats are standing by him. Sen. Chris Murphy hailed Schumer’s ability “to feel the new center and adjust.”
“Chuck is adaptive. He is relentlessly in touch with members to get a sense of where the pulse is shifting and he’s very good at getting out ahead of it,” the Connecticut Democrat said in an interview.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) predicted that Schumer will shine as he navigates the shadow presidential primary among as many as a half-dozen of his Democrats.
“I think you will see Sen. Schumer’s real strengths of caucus leader as he navigates the big egos of several senators launching presidential campaigns in our caucus,” Coons said. Coons added that he’s talked to Schumer every day since the election, and that Schumer was trying to call him during a Friday telephone interview with a reporter.
Schumer’s trademark volubility was on full display this week as he addressed Trump’s rosy view of Senate Republican midterm wins, publicly warning the president that “if you can only campaign in the reddest states that you won by 30 or 40 points in the last election and no one wants you in large parts of America, that doesn’t bode well for your political future.”
Yet it might work just fine for Senate Republicans, as McConnell noted on Friday.
“I’ll remind everybody that every state’s got two senators and we’ve got a lot of red states,” the Kentuckian told reporters. “I think that bodes well, hopefully, for the future of having the Senate Republican majority.”
The GOP is also hopeful that the 2020 presidential contest will help its case by forcing Schumer’s members to tack leftward.
“Most of us believe that overall our country is a center-right nation,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who is up for reelection in 2020. “Some of my colleagues in the 2020 cycle are going to stake out positions on the far left for reasons of their presidential aspirations that are completely unsupported by the majorities of Republicans and Democrats.”
But while it’s undeniable that Senate GOP candidates powered to victory in rural areas where Trump remains a huge draw, Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia showed it is possible for moderate Democrats to win in states where the president remains popular.
Schumer’s caucus will also have a new opening to hammer McConnell next year as the majority leader gets to work rebuffing the new House Democratic majority’s priorities on issues that otherwise poll well.
And not every Republican shares Trump and McConnell’s rosy outlook about the Senate GOP’s midterm night.
Picking up seats in the chamber is merely “an affirmation of a favorable map,” retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in an interview. “Two years from now, it’s going to be an interesting election.”