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Schumer Sees Big Nov. Gains

‘Dramatic Change’ in the Air

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Wednesday telegraphed monumental pickups for Senate Democrats this fall, an unchallenged reign for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and a continued public career for his home-state colleague and ex-presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

But Schumer’s prognostications, delivered in a wide-ranging interview with Roll Call reporters and editors, turned more ambiguous when it came to his own future as an ambitious two-term Senator and No. 3 party leader. Schumer has left his options wide open to include a third, unprecedented term at the helm of the DSCC or another opportunity within the Senate leadership lineup.

And when the discussion shifted to whether Reid is secure in his re-election and as the chamber’s No. 1 Democrat, Schumer steadfastly defended his Nevada ally, but also took the chance to turn the spotlight on his next move.

“I love Harry Reid. We are like brothers,” Schumer said. “We’ve been in a foxhole together. In a Democratic caucus that runs the gamut, he brings us a unity — and not just any unity. … He’s extremely popular within our caucus. He’s a great listener. He has the right blend of trying to accommodate the individual needs of Members, but at the same time understanding that sometimes you have to do things for the greater good.

“I think he’s going to run in 2010. I think he loves his job. And I hope he does” run again, Schumer said, as he pivoted to his own future. “I’m very happy with my role in the Senate. … I wake up Monday morning, and I love going to work. As long as that stays, I’m staying where I am.”

Schumer is in his second year as the Democratic Conference vice chairman and the fourth year of his two-term chairmanship at the DSCC, where he’s helped guide Senate Democrats through a historic period of political fortune. In 2006, Senate Democrats wrested a surprising six seats from the GOP to give the party the majority, and in 2008, Schumer is eyeing a road map to surpass those gains and strengthen the party’s control of Congress.

Democrats believe they have a shot at winning as many as 11 GOP-controlled Senate seats this fall, with Schumer predicting the best shot at five — Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado and Alaska. Schumer cited Minnesota, Oregon and North Carolina as the next group of states for possible Democratic pickups, and three longer shots in the states of Mississippi, Maine and Kentucky, the latter of which is home to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R).

“That’s just where the snapshot is now,” Schumer explained.

Calling this year “a dramatic change election year,” Schumer said he believes the country is on the cusp of “large permanent changes” that could give Democrats the upper hand for the foreseeable future. Schumer likened 2008 to the election years of 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt secured his first term as president and ushered in two new generations of Democrats, and 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the White House and created a lasting bloc of Republican loyalists. “We’ve been playing on the Republican field ever since,” Schumer said.

But Schumer argued that the Reagan era — marked by policies of self-responsibility and an arm’s-length government — no longer resonates in a climate where the electorate is uncertain about its future. Schumer added that even though Democrats now control Congress, he believes voters ultimately will blame the GOP for the country’s problems, particularly a struggling economy marred by higher inflation, a housing crisis and skyrocketing gas prices.

“Things can change, but right now the wind is more strongly at our back than I’ve ever seen it,” Schumer said.

Schumer does not believe voters will punish Democrats this fall for failing to make major changes in public policy since taking control of the House and Senate in January 2007, arguing voters “get it” and understand that President Bush and the GOP minority in Congress have blocked Democrats from enacting many sweeping reforms.

Schumer also said voters recognize that Democrats are trying to address their concerns and want to take the country in a new direction, but need more political muscle to overcome near-constant GOP-orchestrated roadblocks.

“I think they are more focused on getting change than on what you’ve accomplished,” Schumer said of voters, although he also stressed that each week Senate Democrats are still trying to pass their priorities to “show we are trying to help.”

“The message we are going out there with is a message of change,” he said. “It’s a message that so many of [the GOP’s] incumbents voted 90 percent of the time with George Bush.”

The outgoing president’s unpopularity has been a constant talking point for national Democrats in recent months, and in recent weeks has become part of their attack against presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Democrats have charged that McCain represents a third Bush term and would do little to create a new platform for the country.

Schumer said Democrats will best the GOP on both Iraq and the economy, giving props to presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for articulating a strong message on both fronts that will pay the party dividends in November. Calling him one of his “closer friends” in the Senate, Schumer said he believes Obama will provide a boost for Democratic House and Senate candidates this fall, particularly, but not only, in the South, where he has strong appeal to African-American voters.

“I think Obama will help because I think he’s in sync with what the American people want,” Schumer said. “He has a strong economic message that is far more acceptable to the American people than the McCain mantra, which is shrink government and cut taxes. That was McCain’s hugest mistake.”

Schumer had endorsed his fellow New York Senator over Obama in the hard-fought contest for the Democratic presidential nomination that finally ended last week. Schumer and Clinton’s relationship has at times been strained, but the two have worked to solidify a strong working alliance during their respective Senate careers.

Calling both Obama and Clinton “great,” Schumer said he feels bad that Clinton lost her quest for the nomination. Still, he said, he has “always admired” Obama and said he feels “better now that the primaries are over and you can sing in unison.”

Questions have been mounting over what Clinton will do next now that her campaign has ended, with speculation ranging from the vice presidency to the New York governor’s mansion to a future leadership job in the Senate, possibly as the next Majority Leader. Clinton is just one of several Senate Democrats who have been mentioned as possible successors to Reid, who most believe is secure in his post for the foreseeable future.

Asked whether he saw any scenario under which Reid could be vulnerable to an internal challenge, Schumer — who could seek the Majority Leader job himself one day — slammed the door shut, saying that he sees no situation in which that would happen. “I think he’s extremely popular with our caucus.”

Similarly, Schumer wouldn’t bite on any specifics for Clinton’s job prospects, but he did guarantee she would maintain a presence on the Democratic political stage.

“She’s dedicated to public service,” he said. “She’s spent her whole life doing something to make the country better. I think she’ll continue to do that.”

And what about the idea of the “dream” presidential ticket featuring Obama and Clinton? Schumer demurred: “Right now I think Barack Obama is going to make that choice. I don’t think it’s helpful to have everyone else speculate.”

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