Who will it be?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Replacing Harry Reid

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

The retirement of Harry Reid next year will end a record run of stability. Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi have all been in various positions of congressional leadership since at least 2007, so the quartet is on track to complete a full decade together before Reid leaves. He will have served six full Congresses as his party’s leader; no one has topped that since Mike Mansfield, who had eight terms in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reports already have Chuck Schumer as the favorite to replace Reid as the Democratic leader, and some groups are already mobilizing to find a more (perceived) liberal senator such as Elizabeth Warren  to defeat him.

Those progressive groups are probably wasting their time.

Senate leadership elections are highly personal, and the things that the voters care about rarely correspond to what groups outside of the Senate care about.

Remember, we’re talking about an electorate of about 50 senators, plus or minus 10, who will make this decision after the 2016 elections. They may not spend as much time together as they did back before easy flights home took them away on weekends, but personal relationships happen and matter in these leadership elections.

And even under current conditions of strong parties and intense partisan polarization, Senate leadership isn’t really about policy and leaders certainly aren’t dictators, or even particularly powerful. They are very much servants of their caucuses. Senators will look for someone they can trust to protect their rights, to fight for the party by exploiting the rules, and to make their lives easy when it comes to scheduling and other such mundane matters. Outside groups may mobilize as if the contest were an ideological showdown, but it rarely is one.

Expect quite a lot of fuss about this over the next 18 months, but don’t be fooled: The ideological slant of Senate Democrats will be set by election results, not the outcomes of leadership contests.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net