Durbin and Schumer both trying to help out Reid

Helping the Democratic leader is smart politics, but it's also part of the job both men already have

Published April 28, 2010 3:43PM (EDT)

Majority Leader Harry Reid with Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin    (Reuters)
Majority Leader Harry Reid with Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (Reuters)

Cable news was abuzz Tuesday about a report in Politico that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were both raising money hand over fist for Harry Reid. Schumer hosted a big event in Brooklyn Monday morning for the embattled Senate majority leader's Nevada reelection race; Durbin will host one in Chicago next week.

That's the stuff of palace intrigue in the Senate these days. Why? Because both Durbin and Schumer, the second- and third-ranking Democrats there, seem to want to take over Reid's job if he loses in November. Which means just about anything -- including attempts to help Reid keep the gig -- is starting to be viewed by the media as an undercover maneuver designed to position his would-be successors for a leadership race-in-waiting.

To an extent, that makes some sense. Both Schumer and Durbin clearly appear to be making preparations in case Reid does lose and a contest does develop. The last close Democratic leadership battle, after all, came down to one vote, between Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota; Reid managed to head off a run by Dodd after Daschle lost in 2004, in part by lining up support early and announcing it just hours after Daschle conceded his Senate race (which, at the time, wasn't the most popular move among Daschle staffers). Smart politicians plan ahead so they can seize opportunities as they come up.

But that doesn't mean everything the two of them are doing is being guided by visions of leadership jobs to come. If Reid does lose -- which Senate Democrats all say they don't expect, no matter what the polls show -- it's worth remembering the nature of the campaign that would follow. The leadership election would be held behind closed doors, and the electorate would be pretty small: Only Democratic senators would get to vote. So the kind of posturing for public show that's necessary in, say, the early stages of a presidential campaign aren't as important for Durbin or Schumer. Interest groups can weigh in, but senators aren't likely to side with one candidate or the other on a matter that matters so much to their day-to-day work just because an outside organization prefers one of them. Current and former Senate aides say it's personal relationships, more than policy positions on issues, that tend to decide how lawmakers vote on something like that. Both Durbin and Schumer are (obviously) well known by everyone in the caucus, and as members of the leadership team already, they don't really need to prove they believe the party line; after all, they helped write it.

The fundraising for Reid isn't particularly unusual. Both Durbin and Schumer host fundraisers for Senate Democrats all the time. Durbin, for instance, hosted two for Reid in Chicago already, and also one at Ronald Perelman's New York home, as well as events for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Texas, New York, Illinois, California, Florida and North Carolina. Aides say he's also hosted more than half a dozen other events in Chicago for other candidates. Schumer, meanwhile, used to run the DSCC and is a very prolific fundraiser who has given the Nevada Democratic Party $25,000 in the last two years. (In 2004, when Daschle was losing to John Thune in South Dakota, Democrats helped out however they could; John Kerry's campaign didn't make a peep when Daschle ran a TV ad featuring him hugging George W. Bush, and at one point late in the campaign, national Democrats bought ads on South Dakota TV just to keep Thune from getting the time.)

Is that kind of work likely to be noticed by fellow Democrats if Reid does lose? Absolutely. But is it also the sort of thing the top-ranking Senate leaders would be doing anyway, even if Reid was cruising to reelection? Yes. Senate insiders say the best way either Durbin or Schumer can win support for a leadership bid is by doing their day jobs well. So while it makes sense to keep an eye on what both of them are doing -- after all, either one could be the next Senate majority leader if Reid can't turn his race around -- the leadership race isn't necessarily the only thing driving either of them. Sometimes, as Freud would say, a cigar is just a cigar. Even in the Senate.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2010 Elections Chuck Schumer D-n.y. Democratic Party Harry Reid Richard J. Durbin D-ill.