In his first few months as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has shown a willingness to broker 2006 Senate primaries.
But could that come back to haunt him in the weeks ahead, as some of the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters demand their due?
Schumer helped recruit highly regarded Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D) into the race against Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), bypassing ex-state Treasurer (and former Republican) Barbara Hafer (D), who was the choice of EMILY’s List and other abortion-rights organizations.
And DSCC officials risked the ire of women’s groups again when they urged Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) — like Casey, an opponent of abortion rights — into the race to unseat Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R). For a while, Langevin looked like he was going to run, before demurring.
Now, as competitive open-seat primaries loom in Maryland and Minnesota, Schumer and other Democratic leaders may find themselves under intense pressure to get behind candidates who are favored by some of the party’s most reliable voting blocs.
In both cases, the activists are wondering whether the party will live up to its rhetoric on diversity by promoting women and minority candidates — even if these candidates may not be considered the strongest general-election nominees.
In Maryland, some national and state black politicians are suggesting that the party clear the field for former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (D), who has already declared his candidacy.
“The national DSCC ought to step in and see if they can elect a second African American to the Senate,” said one national black Democratic leader who did not want to be named.
And in Minnesota, where two women are among the candidates exploring a Senate bid, groups like EMILY’s List may call on the DSCC to get behind either Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar (D) or child-safety advocate Patty Wetterling (D).
“Look at the calculus there,” said Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, referring to how Klobuchar and Wetterling collectively raised almost $1 million this quarter.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for the DSCC, said the committee tries to recruit the best candidate possible in every state, but it feels less compelled to get involved in open-seat races like Maryland and Minnesota where there are a surplus of strong contenders.
“The DSCC has never formally endorsed primary candidates,” he said. “Our focus is on making sure that we have the best nominee in place. By all accounts in Maryland and in Minnesota, we’re fortunate that such a large number of quality candidates, or people who are considering running, exist.”
But in Maryland, the situation could become particularly raw. Black Democrats in the Free State are still smarting over the fact that the party did not have any minorities on its statewide ticket in 2002, even as the Republicans were electing a black lieutenant governor, Michael Steele. That tamped down black turnout, which is critical to Democratic fortunes in close statewide races.
Steele, who has not disclosed his intentions, is seen as the GOP’s leading potential Senate candidate in Maryland next year — further complicating the Democrats’ strategy.
“Blacks have been the backbone of the state Democratic Party for generations, but there has never been any reward in terms of blacks running for statewide office,” said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland and a former campaign strategist for the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “On the other hand, the Republicans elect Michael Steele. It looks funny.”
Mfume said that while he has not been part of any discussions about pressuring the party to get behind him, he understands why black voters and leaders are frustrated.
“Probably what you are seeing is people who are very loyal Democrats assuming and believing that the party, to hold on to its base in the black community, needs to be showing a demonstrable willingness to do what it can to promote black candidates,” he said.
Mfume added: “I believe in the party, and I hope that the party believes in me.”
While there doesn’t appear to be a formal lobbying campaign on Mfume’s behalf yet, several black Democrats in Washington, D.C., and in Maryland are discussing the possibility.
Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Al Gore’s presidential bid, said in a recent Roll Call column and an interview last week that many blacks view the Maryland race as a test of the party’s ability to rally around worthy black candidates. She warned of “a cesspool effect” if Democratic leaders are seen as spurning Mfume in the primary, which could limit black turnout in the general election and, in turn, drag down the party’s nominees.
Brazile said Mfume, who transformed himself from a street hood to a Congressman to president of the NAACP, is the kind of “national superstar” candidate that Democrats have embraced in recent Senate elections, like Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in 2000 and Barack Obama (Ill.) in 2004. The white candidates most likely to run, Reps. Benjamin Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, cannot match Mfume’s star power, she said.
“This guy can raise money all over America,” Brazile said. “These other candidates — well-intentioned and well-qualified — can’t possibly rally the kind of national support he can.”
But several political observers believe that Mfume’s chances of winning increase in a multicandidate primary and that he would be the underdog in a head-to-head race with one white opponent.
Moreover, not all black leaders are insisting that the party make way for Mfume.
For starters, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D), who succeeded Mfume in Congress, has still not ruled out a Senate run, though it is considered unlikely at this stage. Neither has Prince George’s County States Attorney Glenn Ivey (D), who is also black. And black Members of Congress may be hesitant to take sides in a primary in which some of their colleagues, black or white, may be competing.
“You want people to fight for this thing, and earn it,” one black Democratic operative said about the party nomination.
Mfume said that his preparations for the primary will not be affected by the disposition of Democratic leaders.
“It’s kind of early, and I don’t know what the larger party or the [Senate] committee has in mind, but I’m in it ’til the end,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, EMILY’s List is not pressuring the DSCC to get behind a particular candidate yet. But Oliver said the group, which supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights, is touting the two women who are talking about seeking the Senate nomination, Klobuchar and Wetterling.
“We’re thrilled about the amount of money they have both raised,” Oliver said. “They’re both really strong candidates.”
For now, the leaders of EMILY’s List are mum about which candidate they prefer — even though the group backed Wetterling in her 6th district race against Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) last year.
Wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi, who unsuccessfully sought the Senate nomination in 2000, heads the list of other potential Democratic candidates in the Gopher State.
Barry Casselman, a Minneapolis-based freelance columnist who specializes in politics in the Midwest, said he thinks the force of EMILY’s List and like-minded groups has already been felt in the race.
He points to Mark Rotenberg, the University of Minnesota official who pulled out of the contest last week.
“I think he got a little lesson in realpolitik,” Casselman said. “The powers that be, especially the Twin Cities powers, are really supporting Klobuchar. I have a feeling he was pushed out.”
As for Ciresi, Casselman surmised that he may be waiting to see if one of the women forces the other out early before making his move.
“I think he’s playing a waiting game; he has shrewdly decided with the two women in the race that it is important not to become the target as the only man in the race but let them go at it for a while,” Casselman said. “He will wait to see if there is a real popular demand for either of these ‘products’ [first]. I think Ciresi’s problem is there is not a real demand for him either.”
National party strategists say the potential candidates in Minnesota are all talking to one another and may reach an accommodation that spares them from a bloody primary. Wetterling, for example, could be persuaded to run again for the now-open 6th district seat.