Senate Democrats are scrambling to recruit a leader for their campaign arm, and some Democrats say they are in the dark as Chuck Schumer assembles his leadership team with the party’s elections just a day away.
The most pressing issue: No one seems to want to take over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The party faces a daunting 2018 map and the prospect of Republicans padding their majority.
Also unresolved is what Sen. Patty Murray of Washington will do as she pointedly refuses to take a challenge to Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois off the table.
Senior Democrats have been eyeing Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland who was just elected to the Senate, for the DSCC post. But in an interview on Tuesday, Van Hollen said there’s no plan in place for him to take the position. Democrats will be defending 25 seats, including 10 in states that Trump won.
“I’m really focused right now on orientation. I really haven’t had a chance to focus on it. I’m not planning on that,” Van Hollen said. “Nothing’s been decided.”
Van Hollen would be an attractive choice for Democrats. He has good relationships with donors from his time chairing the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
Though it would be highly unusual for a freshman senator to take the job, several Democrats said Van Hollen is “likely” to be selected for the position.
Other high-profile senators, such as Cory Booker of New Jersey and Al Franken of Minnesota, have passed on the job. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, another possibility, officially ruled out the job on Tuesday as well.
“This is really not the right time for my family to be taking on the challenging role of chairing the DSCC for the 2018 cycle. And I’ve conveyed that to my caucus leadership,” said Coons, who wants to spend time with his children while they are still in school. “I just think taking a chairmanship of a role that would be so demanding … is just not the right choice.”
Another Democrat who could head the DSCC is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who won a brutal reelection race against former Sen. Scott Brown in 2014.
But Shaheen said “stop that rumor,” making clear she would not take the position.
Murray , No. 4 in the Senate Democratic leadership, has refused to say what her plans are beyond talking to Senate Democrats about the party’s future. Most Democrats believe she will not challenge Durbin, because she is not actively working to round up supporters.
“Nobody’s fighting for votes,” said one senator who has spoken to Murray.
Democrats said it was unusual that so many of them are in the dark going in, although one senator said “we’ve got bigger fish to fry” than focusing on palace intrigue.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s retirement has opened up a vacancy in the upper rungs of leadership, and Murray is set to move up regardless.
Schumer declined to answer questions about the leadership limbo his caucus is in. He said he will not speak until after Wednesday morning’s leadership elections. Some senators said privately they have not been briefed on his plans.
Durbin’s office has repeatedly asserted he has the votes locked up to keep the whip job. Only the top two jobs in the Democratic leadership are elected positions — the rest are up to Schumer.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is also pursuing a leadership role, Democrats said, but he appears unlikely to leapfrog Murray. Still, there is some talk of adding new blood to the leadership team, either with Sanders or perhaps the elevation of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), another prominent liberal.
Asked about his possible leadership aspirations Tuesday, Sanders said: “If the question is, will I contest Sen. Schumer or Sen. Durbin, no, I’ve never had any intention of doing that.”
Sanders later declined to rule out seeking another spot in leadership, telling reporters that “we’re thinking about it.”
Merkley also shrugged off talk of adding himself or another liberal to Democratic leadership. “I’m just happy to have Sen. Schumer lay out his plan” for steering the caucus, Merkley said. “There are many, many ways I can express my opinions and my involvement.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, another leading liberal, sought to quash discontent on the left over Schumer’s close ties to Wall Street. The Democratic leader’s “support for the No. 1 target of big banks,” the Dodd-Frank financial regulations bill passed after the market meltdown of 2008, shows he can stand up to Wall Street, Whitehouse told reporters.
The likely ascension of Murray and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan would open up a slot in the lower tier of Democratic leaders. Currently, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are also on Reid’s team.