Democrats are not waiting for someone to fall over and die

December 2013, in Brooklyn, a Washington Post reporter called Schumer to ask the leading question of the day. The text of the article read: “Is Schumer looking at a prime position to succeed Chuck

December 2013, in Brooklyn, a Washington Post reporter called Schumer to ask the leading question of the day. The text of the article read: “Is Schumer looking at a prime position to succeed Chuck Schumer as minority leader of the Senate?” The reporter was speaking to Frank Lautenberg, who still ran the Democratic caucus. “I like him as a person,” Lautenberg said, “but that’s not my decision.” He went on: “He’s great for the party, but I wouldn’t say he has the inside track.” Lautenberg was dead, but the word had stuck. “Somebody needs to step forward,” Lautenberg said. “They can’t be waiting for somebody to fall over and die.”

When Frank Lautenberg died last week, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer filled two of the senior spots in the Democratic congressional delegation in California. Long assumed to be fated to spend the rest of their lives fighting inside the party for leadership positions, the young lion and the revolutionary trade unionist saw their party seats and their political careers enshrouded in their state’s shadow. Chuck Schumer had temporarily taken over the seat Chuck Schumer was once expected to hold forever, even though nobody was handing him the next five months. For Nancy Pelosi, the next five months would be about clinging to her own seat for as long as possible, and not by accident. No Democratic leader had ever survived, not even for more than a year.

Chuck Schumer’s path to leadership has been a troubled one. In his early twenties, he refused to give up his spot as counsel for the House Democratic caucus. Instead of becoming an eventual congressman, Chuck Schumer rose to power as a senior lobbyist at Cassidy and Associates. “The advice I would give him,” Bob Livingston told the NY Daily News in 1996, “is that the whole Pelosi thing is going to be hard, that the next two years are going to be tough, and it’s his fault.”

In 1997, Chuck Schumer got an important job offer to run then-President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in New York. His chosen route by then was for him to resign the head of the DNC position, take the reins of state party organisation and run for New York governor. His ambitious political ambition was in full bloom. It did not work out.

But then came the 2002 midterms. “New York was so badly beaten,” says Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster, “Democrats learned some lessons from it.” With no margin for error in the polls, the party stumbled and Democratic leaders from Maryland to Maryland ran and, as Steve Sandberg of New York magazine puts it, won “with the scorched earth rules”. If a candidate took an unpopular position, then he or she ran hard to the left and hard to the right. If a candidate stayed to the centre, well, that is what candidates tend to do in primary races in primaries. (See, among others, Mike Bloomberg, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Robert Menendez, David Paterson and Lincoln Chafee.) “It was a similar pattern to 2006,” Schoen says. “It was not a game of governing. It was an ideological purge.” The 2015 midterms are going to be even uglier.

“It is a moment of desperation for Democrats,” Schoen says. “Nancy Pelosi will not have a serious opponent in either the presidential primary or in the primary for House speaker.” Hmmm.

Now Chuck Schumer has an opportunity he really does not need. He has a Democrat-only chance to reach the number of people he needs to accomplish his own ambitions. And this isn’t the only opportunity to reach the number of people he needs to achieve his ambitions. “On Tuesday night,” says Samuel Berger, an international security consultant, “it will be lights out for his ambitions.”

The last time Democratic primaries turned into a referendum on a Democrat’s qualifications for the office the incumbent was the best president of the united states. That was 1860. Can history repeat itself? “It won’t be a contest,” says Charles Busch, chairman of the Democratic caucus in New York. “On Tuesday night, I think, the people who want to see Nancy Pelosi will show up and vote.”

• This article was amended on 16 November. An earlier version suggested Michael Long lost his Brooklyn Assembly seat because of his leadership of the Democratic party, not because he accepted a head job with a partisan national organisation.

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