Buzzzzzz. The cell phone rings again and Chuck Schumer flips it open. “I figured it out,” he says without preamble. “George Washington. If George Washington got indicted, you wouldn’t pounce on the guy—you’d say he served honorably and now it’s time for Alaskans to move on.” Snap. The phone shuts. It’s 10 days before the election. Schumer, New York’s senior senator and the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is overseeing 35 Senate races. He is explaining—trying to explain—his strategy in a handful of the closest ones. But the phone keeps interrupting. He particularly worries about Alaska, where at this very moment a jury is deciding the fate of the Republican incumbent, Ted Stevens, who was indicted for taking bribes. Buzz. “They’re still deliberating? Keep me posted.” Snap. In most places, a bribery indictment would spell doom. But Alaskans, like Louisianans, seem to regard corruption in their politicians as an endearing rather than a disqualifying trait: the race is tight. Schumer must figure out how to persuade them to retire Stevens, but without being seen as doing so. Should Alaskans decide that meddlesome outsiders are scheming to do in their beloved “Uncle Ted,” spite alone will carry him to victory. That’s where George Washington comes in. An ad treating Stevens with similar reverence—a call for change made more in sorrow than in anger—could do the trick, giving Alaskans “permission,” in the political argot, to vote Democratic. Such an ad would require just the right touch. In fact—Flip. “I want sign-off on the Stevens ad.” Snap—it could decide the race, if the jury doesn’t first.
More than any other Democrat in Congress, Schumer is responsible for his party’s gains over the past four years. From his perch atop the DSCC, he has focused his frenetic energy on rebuilding the caucus, and has tossed aside the committee chairman’s customary deference to the state parties in order to pick the candidates he sizes up as winners—an unpleasant business that has entailed relentlessly pursuing his sometimes-reluctant targets and bullying everyone else to the sidelines. Then he drills his charges on every facet of the campaign, from raising money to capturing media attention, a formula so scrupulously replicated that he has dubbed it the Schumer Method. Finally, he infuses them with a set of policy proposals, ranging from middle-class tax cuts to college-tuition tax deductions, that reflect his staunchly held political philosophy, best summed up as a rigorous fealty to the interests of the middle class. “When Chuck gets up in the morning, he’s thinking about the middle class,” Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat elected to the Senate in 2006, told me. “When he goes to bed, he’s thinking about it. When he writes books, he writes books about it. Maybe coincidentally, maybe not, his issues are issues that people in Montana find important. He focuses on values that everyone in the caucus can support.” During his first two-year cycle as DSCC chairman, in 2004–2006, by what looked like sheer dint of effort, Schumer took the caucus from a perilously small 44 seats to a narrow majority, and then reenlisted for another cycle. By last fall, it was clear he would deliver again. It was also clear, as Democrats gained momentum and the economic crisis cast his ideas about the middle class into sudden stark relief, that his influence was growing.