Senate Democrats have a once-a-decade chance to pick a leader, a fresh, new face of a party that badly needs a jolt.
The strong favorite to succeed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, 75, is the champion fundraiser and brash Brooklyn political veteran, Sen. Charles Schumer, 64.
Reid, of Nevada, surprised colleagues Friday with an early-morning announcement that he wouldn’t seek another Senate term in 2016. A few hours later, speaking of potential successors, he said he thought Schumer “has earned it.”
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No surprise there. The Senate is a fortress of tradition, where desks still have inkwells, two spittoons sit at the front of the chamber and a clerk calls all 100 names at least once during every roll call.
Its leadership change is unlikely to boost the image of the ailing Democratic Party. Democrats last year lost control of the Senate and saw Republicans gain their biggest House of Representatives majority in decades.
Republicans start the 2016 election cycle with a deep, younger bench of potential presidential candidates. Of the current top tier of White House hopefuls, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is 43 and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is 47. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who Monday became the first major Republican to formally declare his candidacy, is 44.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is 67. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the darling of the left though she says she isn’t running, is 65.
The party’s search for new blood won’t begin in the Senate, where the leadership path is rugged and rigid and Schumer has painstakingly survived and thrived.
He first won his Senate seat in 1998 by trouncing three-term Republican incumbent Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. He chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 cycle – when the party regained control of the chamber – and in 2008.
As the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader today, Schumer is in charge of the party’s “messaging” operation, explaining policy and making sure it’s publicized.
“He has the skills Democrats need,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution, a center-left research group.
Schumer’s media savvy is a running gag line. He’s been on “The Daily Show” several times and is a frequent Sunday network talk show guest. Former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole is said to have quipped, “The most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a television camera.”
Democrats won’t decide Reid’s successor until after the 2016 election. Schumer would leapfrog Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the assistant minority leader, once his roommate in a Capitol Hill group house.
Durbin, 70, is highly regarded for his insider skills and affable manner, but Schumer’s assertiveness gives him an edge. “It’s too bad he and Durbin can’t be co-leaders,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Schumer would be at least a stylistic departure from Reid. The Senate Democratic leader since 2005, Reid was uniquely fit for the job, an ex-boxer who knew how to fight as well as a savvy inside political player.
As top Democrat, Reid used his fighter’s instincts a lot more than his insider skills, a departure from the leader’s traditional role. The Senate became polarized in recent years like rarely before in modern times, thanks to a Republican Party steered by its conservative grassroots tea party wing and Democrats determined to promote President Barack Obama’s agenda.
Reid’s relationship with Republican leader Mitch McConnell deteriorated, hitting a nadir in 2013 when Democrats engineered a rules change permitting 51 votes to limit certain debates.
The new Democratic leader will plunge headfirst into this turmoil. Voters have sent clear signals they want Washington to work; they’re sick of the bickering.
But Democrats also feel that to regain Senate control next year, they need clearly defined positions appealing to broad constituencies. That usually doesn’t mean compromising with Republicans.
Some liberals Friday raised questions about Schumer and suggested Warren as Reid’s replacement. “She has a tremendous following. She’s the de facto leader in shaping the Democratic agenda,” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action.
Warren, though, has only been in the Senate about two years, and senators rarely depart from tradition in picking leaders. It’s happened in recent times only twice.
Once it worked. In 1989, Democrats picked Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, then starting his ninth Senate year, to succeed Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Democrats had just lost a third straight presidential election and felt the dour Byrd did not project a warm image on television. The stately Mitchell did.
A Republican attempt to digress from the norm went less well. In 2003, Republicans elevated Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist to become Senate leader. While a telegenic presence, Frist never seemed comfortable in the job and retired from the Senate in 2007.
Memories remain fresh. “I really do not see an outsider being a force here, in part because Frist demonstrated the problems with such a selection,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
All signs point to more of the same, just with a New York accent. “In the end,” said Loomis, “I’m not sure I’d want to get between Sen. Schumer and the position as leader.”