Before Tuesday, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer had a chance to be the most powerful man in Washington. The Brooklyn Democrat spent years building toward the 2016 election: recruiting candidates, raising money and fine-tuning a message to win a Democratic majority in the Senate.
But then Republican Donald Trump tore down the Democrats' blue wall and Republican senators unexpectedly won reelection.
Now Schumer, the Senate’s likely next minority leader, will have to lead his political party out of the wilderness.
Schumer, the other 47 senate Democrats and the threat of a filibuster are the last check against a GOP-controlled government, said former Senate aide James Manley.
“He’s going to have to spend most of his time playing defensive baseball," Manley said, "trying to block all of the bad ideas that Republicans are quickly bringing up."
Manley is expecting the worst. “I’m afraid that they see an opportunity to go for it all," he said.
Manley knows what playing defense is like: He spent six years as communications director for outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Democrats have had to scratch and claw to protect Obama-era accomplishments, such as the Affordable Care Act or the Dodd-Frank financial protections.
“There is, at least according to the current set of rules, almost a requirement to compromise to get anything done, to get the 60 votes necessary," Manley said. "And that’s where Sen. Schumer’s influence is going to come in.”
Trump and congressional Republicans said repealing Obamacare is a top priority. Some of that can be done by executive order; other parts require legislation. Trump also said he’ll quickly nominate someone to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court
Schumer, who has a relationship with Trump — the developer donated $2,150 to the senator's 1999 campaign — hasn't discussed the election results publicly. But he acknowledged the new reality in a statement, saying Senate Democrats will “defend our values.” He said the party will spend the next weeks reflecting and plotting a new path forward.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will now get to hang onto his job, had frequently battled with Reid, a former boxer from Nevada who was always willing to throw a political punch.
Schumer is more of a behind-the-scenes deal-maker and McConnell said they’ll get along.
“I respect him. I think he’s very smart. I think we’ll be fine," McConnell said of Schumer. "We both have our roles to play. I don’t expect him to enthusiastically embrace my agenda. On the other hand, to do things in the Senate, you have to have some bipartisan support.”
Trump’s victory was a rebuke of Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, but experts say voters also rejected traditional Republicans. Former House Democratic staffer Michael Hacker said that could give Democrats an opening to cut deals with the Republican president on programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are popular with voters. Trump has said he’ll “save” those programs and won’t cut benefits.
“When you think about [the Trump] positions, that’s about the anti-Paul Ryan,” Hacker said.
Hacker said Schumer and Democrats were offered something else to work with in Trump’s victory speech— a billion-dollar construction plan to rebuild the country's highways, bridges, tunnels and airports.
“It’s a departure from what we think of as conservative orthodoxy," Hacker said. "How he governs is an open question. And I think there are opportunities and avenues to work with the president on an economic policy that puts the middle class and the working class first.”
Schumer will also have to balance differences within his own party. There are the Clinton centrists, like vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine who will be returning to the Senate. But there are also the progressive Democrats who want to push their own economic message.
"I’m confident that the progressives in the Senate, including Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders among others, are going to go on offense,” Manley said. “I expect that Sen. Schumer is going to have to deal with [a] very antsy and/or very aggressive Senate Democratic Caucus.”
Former Democratic staffer Hacker said Schumer will have the first shot at drafting a new economic message for Democrats.
“By default he will have one of the largest megaphones," he said, "just because there’s such a vacuum now.”
And Schumer is uniquely qualified. He’s quick with a quip on camera and has proven his political instincts by recruiting good candidates who can win in red-leaning states like Indiana and Missouri.
“Chuck Schumer is a Swiss Army knife," Hacker said. "He has all of the tools in one legislator that you would want to be leading a reconstruction effort of this magnitude."
“And I think he’s honest," he said. "And it will be a brutally honest assessment that the party will have to undertake.”