After suffering deeper than expected losses in the 2014 elections, Harry Reid faced insurrection in his ranks, with at least six of his members voting to oust him as the Democratic leader.
Don't expect Chuck Schumer to face those same foes.
A lot could change in the next 19 months, but as of now, a source close to Schumer said, he has the backing of every current Senate Democrat to be the next leader.
Of the half-dozen Democrats who admitted voting against Reid in November (the election was conducted via secret ballot, so there may have been others), four have nothing but praise for Schumer and are supporting him for the position. As for the other two: Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, whom Schumer elevated to a leadership job this year, declined to comment for this story, and former Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana lost her reelection race in a December runoff.
"I've got a great relationship with Schumer. He's my best friend," Sen. Joe Manchin, a key centrist who helped to lead the effort to oust Reid in November, said Monday.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who also voted against Reid in November, said that when Schumer called him shortly after Reid announced his retirement plans, he quickly signed on. "I work well with him. So that's why I weighed in and supported him. But also, you know, he's worked very hard for it and I think he'll do a good job for us," Kaine said.
"I wouldn't say my relationship [with Reid] isn't close, it's just that I believe that we needed to at least examine a new direction," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said Tuesday of her November defection. "Chuck and I have been friends for three years now. I find him absolutely one of the most intelligent people I know."
The Democrats emphasized then—and now—that their issue is not with Reid personally. But those on the conference's right flank want a new direction, particularly after seeing their numbers culled in 2014 with the losses of red-state Democrats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina.
"To me, when you have an election like this, common sense says we need to change things," McCaskill said shortly after casting her vote against Reid. "The voice was very loud and unmistakable that most Americans and most Missourians want us to change things. To me, that means changing leadership. It's just that simple."
Things have already gotten better, Kaine said Tuesday: "We're already starting to see some changes, not just from [Schumer] but just generally. We've got a long way to go. "¦ But we're seeing some."
Still, like Reid, Schumer—whose office declined to comment for this story—isn't without his own intraparty battles. Over the past few weeks, Schumer has engaged in a very public spat with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (who has endorsed him) over whether he'll back the Illinois Democrat to keep his leadership position in 2016.
Liberal members who have occasionally battled with Reid are largely on board with Schumer. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was appointed to a leadership position directly under Schumer's purview this year, praised the No. 2 Democrat in a March interview with NPR but stopped just short of endorsing him.
When Schumer takes the reins of the Democratic conference, he'll have a similar challenge to Reid's lying just ahead of him: the 2018 election cycle, which could be even more difficult for Democrats than 2014. Many of the 23 seats up for grabs lie in red and purple states.
Schumer will become leader at a key time for many moderate Democrats, including those who opposed Reid's reelection atop the caucus precisely because of their 2014 losses.
Back in November, Manchin cited the unexpectedly large losses for Democrats as one of his biggest concerns in opposing Reid. "Why we were so misled? Or [did] they so misread it? Or why the polls were so inaccurate? These are all very legitimate questions," he told reporters at the time.
Manchin, Heitkamp, Kaine, and McCaskill all face the real possibility of difficult reelection fights in 2018. And they're joined by a cadre of other vulnerable moderates including Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Jon Tester of Montana.
Having Schumer at the top of the conference could alleviate some of those concerns. The New Yorker led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, during which Democrats gained five and eight seats, respectively. Reid is no political novice and his fundraising Rolodex is one of the few in the Senate to rival Schumer's, but the latter's recent experience electing or re-electing 15 of the 23 incumbents up for reelection in 2018 could put some members' minds at ease.
One of the key arguments McCaskill and others made in November was that the party needed to work harder to show that average Americans that were effecting change; not just, as McCaskill put it, working to "make the other guys look bad."
Ironically, few politicians enjoy the heat of political battle more than Schumer. But the New York Democrat is seen as a smart, fresh face (relative to Reid, anyway) whose stronger relationship with Republican members will help the party to maintain its relevancy, even in the unlikely event that Republicans maintain their majority in 2016.
Now McCaskill says—while chuckling at the media for hounding her all week about a leadership election that's 22 months away—that Schumer is "going to be terrific."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.