Schumer routs Senate foes
N.Y. Democrat re-elected, but will he serve the full term?
Schumer speaking at a labor rally in NewYork. (Courtesy of schumer.senate.gov)
Nobody had to stay up all night to find out whether Sen. Charles Schumer would hold onto his U.S. Senate seat.
As expected, Schumer, D-N.Y., cruised to an easy victory in yesterday's election, winning 71 percent of the vote with roughly 91 percent of the ballots counted. His closest challengers were Republican Assemblyman Howard Mills with 24 percent, and Marilyn O'Grady of the Conservative Party with 4 percent.
"It's more humbling to win by a lot than to win by a little," Schumer told supporters assembled at the Democratic election headquarters in the Grand Hyatt hotel last night. In a ten-minute speech, Schumer acknowledged the support of New Yorkers from across political and geographical boundaries. "For the past six years, I've had a love affair with New York, and I want to assure New Yorkers that, at least from my end, this romance will continue," he said.
This year's New York Senate race unfolded with little fanfare. Schumer's commanding lead in fundraising combined with his successful appeal to traditionally Republican upstate voters put the race out of reach before the campaign even started. His refusal to respond directly to his opponents' criticisms, even in televised debates, helped keep media interest to a minimum. The limited coverage focused instead on side issues such as Schumer's rumored gubernatorial ambitions for 2006.
These rumors are likely to continue because the Democrats failed to win a majority in the Senate yesterday, keeping Schumer in the minority party. "He loves the Senate, he really loves legislating," insisted Jim Kessler, who served as Schumer's campaign manager in his first Senate run in 1998.
Speaking by phone from Washington last week, Kessler speculated about Schumer's future: "If the Democrats have a majority and Kerry wins, then the Senate is more attractive. But if the Democrats will never be in a majority, then being governor would be more attractive."
During the first of two televised debates with Mills and O'Grady two weeks ago, moderator Bill Ritter asked Schumer whether he intended to serve out the full six-year Senate term if elected. Although Ritter twice prodded him for a yes or no answer, the most definitive statement Schumer was willing to offer was: "The only thing on my radar screen is to be a good senator ... But I never say never."
Fuelling the gubernatorial speculation is Schumer's ample war chest, which as of Oct. 13 stood at more than $13 million, according to analysis of campaign filings by the Center for Responsive Politics. Overall, Schumer raised more than $27 million for this campaign, more than any other senatorial candidate in this election cycle, and dwarfing the $578,000 raised by Mills and $101,000 raised by O'Grady in the same period.
Some of Schumer's funds have been allocated to helping Democratic candidates in battleground states. His campaign committee donated more than $2 million to national Democratic organizations, and to candidates in Colorado, Florida, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Washington State.
Beginning in October, Schumer also mounted a significant advertising campaign, despite polls showing him leading his opponents by as much as 55 percent. Campaign filings show that Schumer paid $2 million in the first two weeks of October to the political consulting firm Morris & Carrick, Inc., which produces television ads.
Schumer's commanding lead in fundraising was established early in the race. "In boxing, you'd refer to it as cutting off the ring," Kessler said.
However, money was not the only factor in Schumer's dominance. Kessler cited two other keys: "First, he paid attention to every region, visiting all 62 counties every year. No one since Bobby Kennedy has done that kind of legwork. Second, he was an excellent legislator. He did things like bringing JetBlue to upstate New York."
Schumer's legwork and his focus on local issues were both on display during a campaign stop last Tuesday morning at a farm in Long Island's Suffolk County. Speaking to a small crowd of about a dozen journalists, he criticized Canadian trade practices that he said were costing Long Island potato growers as much as $30,000 each a year.
As the press conference broke up shortly after noon, Schumer's security guard prepared to get back on the road. "He goes everywhere," the guard said as he donned his sunglasses. "Half the time even he doesn't know where he's going." That day's itinerary called for an appearance upstate before rushing back to Staten Island at 4 p.m. for an event in support of Democratic congressional candidate Frank Barbaro, the guard said.
Schumer, meanwhile, was chatting amicably with the reporters, many of whom he knew by first name. Standing behind a makeshift display of local potatoes and pumpkins piled on bales of straw, he posed for a photo with a bag of North Fork Long Island Potato Chips. As he popped a chip in his mouth, shutters clicked.
"I knew I shouldn't have done that," he said. "Don't do it with my mouth open, okay?"
Before leaving, he circulated among the small group of reporters. "Everyone got what they need?" he asked.
Critics have noted Schumer's affinity for the press. They cite as an example his habit of holding Sunday press conferences, taking advantage of what is typically a slow news day to garner better coverage of his activities.
"People are saying he's a newshound, a camera hog, that he's someone who loses no opportunity to push into a picture," said David McReynolds, the Green Party candidate for senator.
Opponents have also criticized Schumer for refusing to respond directly to their attacks. Mills even tried to present Schumer with a "Brooklyn Dodgers" jersey while campaigning outside Schumer's Manhattan office, saying that Schumer had dodged the issues and dodged Mills' requests for further debates.
At the beginning of both televised debates, Schumer himself made a point of saying that he would avoid responding to his opponents' barbs. "Because I'm the incumbent, most of the attacks will be directed at me," he said before the second debate, where each candidate was asked to respond to questions posed by students at Cornell University. "What I'm going to try to do is answer the questions."
Curtis Arluck, a Democratic district leader in Morningside Heights, defended Schumer's approach. "I think it's both a good and a fair tactic," Arluck said. "If you're running ahead, why should you conduct your opponents' campaign for them?" By participating in two debates, Schumer had adequately exposed himself to his opponents, Arluck said.
Kessler, the former Schumer campaign manager, went even further. "Schumer has C-list opponents," he said. "The fact that he's debating at all is a measure of his feeling that there should be debates."
Schumer's policy priorities have put him squarely in the mainstream of New York opinion. He has stated his support for gay and lesbian civil unions, the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, and the review of certain provisions of the Patriot Act - all policies that Mills supports and the more conservative O'Grady opposes. According to the Green Party's McReynolds, Schumer is further to the right than John Kerry on issues such as the war in Iraq. Unlike Kerry, Schumer voted in favor of the $87-billion package for Iraq.
The issue for which Schumer is best known nationally is his opposition to some of George Bush's conservative judicial nominees. Schumer's position on the Senate Judiciary Committee has allowed him to play a significant role in Democratic delaying tactics. This stance is another example of Schumer's mainstream approach, according to Arluck. "Bush is appointing some people who are way out of the mainstream. These are not conservatives like Sandra Day O'Connor," he said.
Kessler agreed, dubbing Schumer a "raging moderate."
"There are many people who would vote for Pataki for governor but for Schumer for senator," Kessler said. Some pundits say these people may be forced to choose one or the other in 2006.