If Harry Reid Loses, Who Will Win The Democratic Leadership Race?

Elisa Miller-PHOTOlink.net/Newsc

If Nate Silver is to be believed (and he usually is) Democrats are just about as likely to keep control of the Senate as Harry Reid is to lose his election.

That would leave Democrats to choose a new Majority Leader — and two of Washington’s most famous roommates poised for a political fight over the top job in the Senate.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin and Conference Chair Chuck Schumer spent a fair amount of the 111th Congress privately — but nakedly — wooing their fellow Democrats, hoping to secure the votes they’d need to ascend to Majority Leader if Reid loses.Aides laughingly recall the quick and urgent calls both men (but particularly Schumer) placed to various Senators after caucus meetings and votes earlier this Congress. At the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner this spring, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) joked that she’d happily vote for Schumer if he’d just stop with all the phone calls to her house — her husband might become suspicious!

It’s common sport in Washington to game out these races, but unlike in leadership fights past, nobody has any clue who’d win in a Durbin-Schumer showdown.

However, aides (current and former) and party strategists all seem to agree on the factors that will determine who wins and who loses.

Factors in Durbin’s favor: a more liberal post-election Dem caucus; his light touch, which egotistical senior senators appreciate; and his gentle demeanor, particularly compared to the sometimes-acerbic Schumer whose raw politicking, Brooklyn accent and ties to financial institutions might, in the minds of some members, constitute a bad face for the party.

Schumer, however, enjoys intense loyalty from the dozen and a half members he helped elect in 2006 and 2008 as head of the DSCC. He’s less liberal than Durbin, which appeals to the right flank of the party, and his political skills are the envy of his peers.

“Durbin has the old guard, but Schumer helped elect a whole bunch of these guys and they owe him,” says a top Democratic strategist, who believes Reid will win his election. “I could see Schumer taking a step back for a few years. He is younger than Durbin and can wait. Plus his more confrontational personality is a better fit for when the wave benefits you.”

According to a former top Democratic aide, voicing the views of a number of members, “the last thing we need is Chuck Schumer as the face of Democrats in 75 percent of the country. The coasts don’t sit well with people in flyover country [and] he’s too close to Wall Street.”

By contrast, “Dick Durbin is a nice guy but some people don’t think he’s effective and a lot of people who think he’s too liberal,” the former aide said.

Reid has maintained a studious silence about the politicking for his still-occupied chair that reached a crescendo earlier this year and became the subject of numerous embarrassing and unflattering news articles. But the source says that if Reid had to pick, he’d probably back Schumer. Reid taught Schumer the Senate’s tricky inside game, and apparently refers to Schumer as a brother.

But at the same time, it’s difficult to recall the last time the Democrats had a Majority Leader who played Schumer-style hardball. “Durbin’s got a light touch and Schumer’s got a hammer,” the former aide says.

Most sources imagine that in a 51 or 52 seat majority, each man could wind up with over 20 votes for leader. There’s an outside chance that a dark horse could enter the race, and toss all this handicapping out the window.

Ed note: This article originally described an event as the “National Press Club Foundation dinner.” The event was actually called the “Washington Press Club Foundation dinner.” We regret the error.

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