Just a few weeks after a group of young climate activists, accompanied by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, orchestrated a highly publicized sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in late 2018, their Sunrise Movement received an unexpected email from Chuck Schumer’s staff.
Could the rabble-rousers meet with the then-Senate minority leader? He wanted to talk to them about his agenda if Democrats ever won back the Senate, which included tackling climate change, democracy reform, and economic and racial inequality. Before long, his team was asking for their support on a clean cars proposal.
Schumer’s outreach was likely no coincidence. New York, the veteran senator’s home state, is the epicenter of the progressive movement’s efforts to oust incumbent Democrats in Congress. And Schumer, who is up for reelection in 2022, has been taking steps both publicly and privately to steel himself from a left-wing primary challenge — especially from his biggest threat, Ocasio-Cortez.
At the time of the meeting, Ocasio-Cortez was fresh off her stunning primary upset victory. She hadn’t even been sworn into office yet. But in the two years since then, Schumer has thrown his weight behind a plan to cancel student loan debt by executive order. He’s voted against the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. He’s said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to eliminating the filibuster. And that’s only a fraction of the progressive moves he’s made in recent years. It still hasn’t inoculated him from the possibility of a primary.
“It’s exciting to see how much action Schumer is currently taking,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff. “And I hope that progressives continue pressuring him, threatening a potential primary.”
With Schumer at the helm of the Senate, the prospect of a left-wing challenge next year stands to play a major role in shaping the legislation that comes out of Washington. That applies whether or not Ocasio-Cortez pulls the trigger, at least for the next few months.
The two-term congresswoman is seriously considering campaigning for the seat but is so far undecided, according to people familiar with her thinking. Multiple sources said her decision will be contingent on how Schumer wields power with his new Democratic majority in the upcoming months: Will he be pushed around by Mitch McConnell? Or will he work to pass ambitious, progressive legislation favored by the left?
“It’s dependent on what Schumer does,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress, referring to a challenge by her or another progressive candidate. “Schumer will have to explain every one of his decisions to one of the most progressive primary electorates in the country, and if voters think he’s capitulating to Mitch McConnell and not organizing his caucus to deliver for working families, then he’s going to be in some trouble.”
So far, Ocasio-Cortez has been careful to avoid tipping her hand in public.
“The congresswoman represents one of the districts most heavily impacted by Covid and that remains her priority and focus,” her spokesperson Lauren Hitt said when asked about a primary challenge.
Some progressive organizations closely aligned with Ocasio-Cortez are likewise taking a wait-and-see approach to a primary, which they said could come from her or another candidate if she decides to forgo a campaign.
“Whether it’s worth the left expending a lot of energy on primarying Chuck Schumer in 2022 certainly depends on what he does in 2021,” said Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement. “We’ve already seen a lot of evolution from Schumer on a whole host of issues, and if he keeps evolving and actually delivers for Democrats and can be the leader we need him to be right now, that’s the biggest thing he could do to avoid a big effort behind a primary from the left next year.”
For those on the left flank of the party, the idea of unseating Schumer is appealing in part because he is a member of a Democratic congressional leadership that they believe has faltered. His record includes a vote in favor of the Iraq War and support for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act — two issues that continue to burn hot on the left. Their desire for a new approach has also taken on more urgency because of the times — progressives acknowledge Schumer is no Joe Manchin, the West Virginia centrist senator, but he’s also not FDR, and that’s what they think is necessary to end Covid, revive the economy and achieve racial justice.
They’ll be watching Schumer closely to see if he can pull off a massive stimulus package, pass climate and jobs legislation, and persuade the holdouts in his caucus to eliminate the filibuster.
Schumer’s allies say his outreach to progressives is part of the relationship-building he’s always prioritized with constituents, particularly in New York, and that his record is representative of the Democratic Party’s overall shift left in recent years. They also chafe at the idea that his left-leaning moves are solely political.The politician who once sold himself as a “law-and-order Democrat” said last year that “the problems that existed, say in the ’90s, are different than the problems that exist today.”
In his first sit-down TV interview since becoming Senate majority leader — which took place with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, a nod to the liberal base — Schumer called for transformative legislation.
“America needs bold change. We need immediate bold change,” he said. “We have Covid, the worst health care crisis in 100 years since the Spanish pandemic flu. The worst economic crisis since the New Deal, so we have to act quickly.”
Despite his rhetoric, many progressives remain skeptical, and scarred by what they viewed as an inadequate response to the recession by Democrats in the Obama era. A group of high-profile left-wing organizations are considering airing TV ads this year to pressure him to go big. Other progressive activists are taking a more aggressive tack, and are in the early stages of supporting a challenge.
Given her national profile, Ocasio-Cortez’s allies are confident she would raise an enormous amount of money if she ran for Senate, perhaps as much as $100 million. She brought in nearly $20 million during her reelection campaign, which she won easily. Many are also bullish about her chances.
“They think she would win,” said a Democratic House source.
Still, progressives know she has work to do outside of New York City if she runs. During the presidential primary, her staff talked to her about potentially building her appeal upstate by campaigning there for Sen. Bernie Sanders if he ended up being competitive in New York, said a person familiar with the conversations. (Sanders ultimately announced he was endorsing Joe Biden before the state’s primary.)
Though some in Schumer’s orbit reportedly believe Ocasio-Cortez is more likely to pursue a campaign for governor or lieutenant governor, her allies said she is more interested in continuing on the legislative track than pursuing an executive career.
If Ocasio-Cortez runs, Schumer won’t be caught off guard like Joe Crowley or Eliot Engel, two powerful House Democrats who were ousted by Ocasio-Cortez and now-Rep. Jamaal Bowman, respectively.
Attuned to the political currents in New York, Schumer has signaled that he is not concerned.
“Throughout my career, I do the best job for my constituents and for my country and it always works out. I haven’t had a grand plan like, ‘I’m going to be here 10 years from now, here in 20 years.’ I do my job well and then the next thing sort of falls into place,” Schumer told POLITICO.
Schumer has also made notable moves to reach out to the left. He has talked regularly with the grassroots group Indivisible. He has written op-eds for the progressive think tank Data for Progress. Prior to Ocasio-Cortez’s ascent to Congress, he put Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on his leadership team.
His willingness to work with progressives has also extended to the congresswoman herself. The two politicians have pushed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide financial assistance for families to help bury loved ones lost to Covid.
Schumer’s allies maintain that a key talking point that was used by the left against Crowley and Engel — that they were D.C. creatures who were absent in New York — won’t stick to him. Schumer is widely regarded as a hard worker, known for his legendary Sunday press conferences in the state, where he zeroes in on hyperlocal issues. Even many progressives privately concede that he is a constant presence across New York.
“The arguments that Congressman Bowman made against Engel were not ideological … but that he’s not here,” said Stu Loeser, Schumer’s former communications director. “This is not an argument that you could make against Chuck Schumer.”
Schumer’s allies likewise believe that, unlike the Democratic state legislators tossed out in 2018 after going rogue and co-leading with Republicans, the left can’t claim he’s conservative: He’s a liberal in the middle of his caucus who, they point out, voted against NAFTA in the 1990s as a House member and has run on the left-wing Working Families Party ballot line for many years.
Indeed, some progressives see Schumer as a partner, particularly after his recent shift leftward. California Rep. Ro Khanna, Sanders’ former campaign co-chair who proposed a $100 billion scientific research bill with Schumer, said he “has been an ally on bold progressive legislation.”
In some corners on the left, that has led to a hesitancy toward challenging him.
“We have to really ask ourselves who is the impediment to liberal things happening in the Senate, and it is in my opinion largely the thinness of the majority and the nature of the people who hold our marginal seats,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress. “And the progressive movement as a whole is limited in the media space it can occupy and the staffing space that it has.”
Some on the left are doubtful Ocasio-Cortez will ultimately run in part because, they said, she hasn’t taken concrete steps toward launching a campaign. And there are different schools of thought among her allies as to whether Schumer’s rise to majority leader makes her more likely or less likely to take him on.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the only candidate whose name is being floated in progressive circles as a potential challenger to Schumer, however. Others include first-term Reps. Bowman and Mondaire Jones, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi.
A spokesperson for Bowman said he is not considering a run for Senate in 2022. Jones and Williams did not provide comment.
Biaggi, the granddaughter of a former New York congressman, said that while she is not thinking about running “at this very moment,” that “I certainly have to revisit it.”
“Unequivocal action needs to happen,” she added. “If it doesn’t happen, then we need to get serious about who is leading us in this moment.”
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