(January 18, 2022) — Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Vice Chair of the Senate Democratic Conference, has been quietly reaching out to her colleagues to commiserate over their shared frustrations with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. During those conversations, Warren has been asking that they privately commit to voting for her if a leadership battle takes place in the coming weeks. Warren would be the first woman to serve as Majority Leader of the Senate.
Increasingly, the caucus views Schumer as lacking strategic insights and policy depth, and his leadership has been punctuated by a consecutive series of strategic missteps that have resulted in few legislative accomplishments. They blame his connections to the banking industry and his weak relationships with organized labor, which is inspiring worries about their ability to mobilize organized labor during the upcoming election cycle.
Presumably, Warren’s leadership in the Senate would excite labor constituencies.
That Schumer is viewed as ‘phony’ in much of ‘Middle America’ — particularly in the post-industrial swing states of the Midwest — is particularly concerning to the caucus, which could very well lose control of the evenly divided chamber in elections later this year. Seats in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Ohio are increasingly out of reach for Democrat contenders there precisely because of Schumer’s unpopularity — to say nothing of worsening polling numbers in the four states where the party hoped to be much stronger: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada.
In a conversation last month with Senator Patty Murray, the Assistant Democratic Leader, Warren expressed her concern that Schumer’s leadership of the caucus going into the next election would almost certainly result in a loss of the chamber. Warren believes that fresh leadership in the chamber will bode well for Democrats across the county. Murray agreed, and has been privately lobbying colleagues to consider the leadership transition.
Murray has gone so far as to ask White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain to arrange a ‘soft-landing’ for Schumer, presumably a diplomatic appointment or cabinet role. The Ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia, which is currently vacant, has been discussed.
“It won’t guarantee us keeping control of the Senate, but it’s certainly not going to hurt at this point,” a former staffer familiar with her thinking explains. “Schumer has lost all credibility with his members, who are quick to enumerate strategic initiatives that he has spearheaded only to be quickly reversed upon the resulting backlash. They adamantly want a leadership change, but they are trying to handle it behind the scenes.”
Meanwhile in New York, Schumer’s own seat is up for reelection later this year — and he’s likely to face Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party’s primary contest this spring. If Schumer loses his primary, most political operatives expect that he would resign his seat immediately in order to allow Governor Kathy Hochul to appoint a favored Democrat to fill the vacancy for the remainder of the term. It’s unclear if Hochul would appoint a place holder, or someone who will be competitive at the ballot box in his or her own right.
Because Warren doesn’t face a reelection until 2024, her leadership of the caucus in the current cycle could prove beneficial for Democrats in swing districts. First, Democrats would avoid the narrative of national embarrassment from seeing a sitting Majority Leader ousted in his own party’s primary. Second, a full-time Majority Leader, unencumbered by reelection distractions, would allow for a focused, steady, and national message — uncomplicated by local political appetites. Third, new leadership would energize the progressive base of the party, and organized labor in particular.
While there is a great deal of support for Warren to succeed Schumer as Majority Leader among progressives, it’s unclear how the caucus’ two most centrist members will view her candidacy. Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Senator Joe Manchin are red-state Democrats whose home-state popularity is advanced when either asserts their independence from party bosses.
Some political operatives expect that Sinema and Manchin will demand a two-year self-imposed term limit of any Majority Leader looking for their votes. As the party looks to consolidate and centralize power — which would fundamentally and irreversibly change the Senate as a consensus-finding institution — Sinema and Manchin want the caucus to institute a two-year term limit on its leadership in aim of further decentralizing power inside the chamber.
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