Updated: 4:30 P.M.
WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) caused a political earthquake on Friday by announcing he won’t seek reelection in 2016, opening up the coveted perch of Democratic leader that he has held since 2005.
Before the jockeying could begin to succeed the mild-mannered political brawler as the chief caucus leader, Reid endorsed New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat, within hours of his announcement.
“I think Schumer should be able to succeed me,” Reid told the Washington Post, predicting that Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, would stand down. Reid said he spoke to Durbin by phone before the interview.
Indeed, it turns out Durbin is also supporting Schumer and won’t seek the top spot.
“Senator Durbin told Senator Schumer late last night that he wasn’t running for Leader, and that Schumer has his support,” a Durbin spokesman told TPM. “Durbin intends to run again for Whip and has Senator Reid’s support. He’s been speaking with senators this morning.”
Schumer would have been the clear favorite to win a race, multiple Democratic sources said.
“Schumer is clearly the frontrunner,” said one Democratic Senate aide, who is unaffiliated with each of the three senators. “He’s just positioned himself that way both publicly and privately. He’s worked very hard to earn the loyalty of the caucus, certainly in a way that Durbin just hasn’t. He tries to engage directly and be a resource and an asset to individual members, to stick up for them and fight for them in leadership meetings.”
The 64-year old Brooklyn native, who leads messaging and strategy for the party, plays an outside and inside game. He’s seen publicly as a media-hungry and elbow-throwing progressive fighter who lusts for confrontation with Republicans. On the inside he’s known as a compromising figure who’s respected by liberals as well as red state Democrats. He likes to boost his members’ spirits — before press conferences start he whispers advice in their ears, and at the end he gives them a proverbial pat on the back with a “good job.”
Within moments of Reid’s announcement Friday, Schumer had a glowing statement praising him as “one of the best human beings I’ve ever met,” adding that he’s “so respected by our caucus for his strength, his legislative acumen, his honesty and his determination. He has left a major mark on this body, this country, and on so many who have met him, gotten to know him, and love him.”
In an afternoon statement after Reid and Durbin’s endorsements landed, Schumer said he was “honored and humbled to have the support of so many of my colleagues.”
Durbin, a smooth talker and savvy operator, was Reid’s natural successor — his chief deputy since 2005. He is well-liked and respected within the conference, although the 70-year-old’s leadership ambitions have been less on display. Notably, though, when Reid was out of action with an eye injury early this year, Durbin stood in as the top Democratic leader, and appeared to enjoy the role.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) was seen as a potential dark horse candidate. In recent years she has led the party in high-profile budget battles, spearheading the passage of a sweeping blueprint in 2013 that set down the party’s vision and shaped its strategy. “[Reid] has asked me to take on some tough jobs over the years,” she said of Reid’s decision to retire. And she surpassed expectations as leader of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm in 2012, when the party was widely expected to lose seats but ended up netting two overall. There’s also the obvious appeal of electing the first-ever woman to lead the caucus.
Moments after Reid’s announcement, liberal activist groups Democracy For America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee began boosting Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to succeed him as Democratic leader. But Warren’s office told TPM she wasn’t interested and “will not” run.