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With Schumer likely next Senate Dem leader, a trend is broken

The announcement that Harry Reid will be retiring from the Senate in 2016, and likely succeeded by Chuck Schumer of New York as Democratic leader, would break a long streak in which floor leaders of the Senate — both majority and minority leaders — have predominantly hailed from smaller states. It’s a little-recognized pattern that for several decades has expanded the influence of small states that are already greatly overrepresented in the Senate by virtue of the equal-representation principle that allocates two senators to each state.

The pattern is undeniable: no Senate floor leader since Republican Howard Baker of Texas left the majority leadership in 1985 has been from one of the nine largest states, which cumulatively make up more than half of the U.S. population. Indeed, nearly all Senate leaders have been from the bottom half of the states when ranked by population, including some of the very smallest in the Union.

To wit: Over the past three decades, the Republican leaders in the Senate have been Bob Dole of Kansas (34th-largest state today), Trent Lott of Mississippi (31st), Bill Frist of Tennessee (17th) and currently Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (26th).

If anything, Democratic leaders have hailed from even smaller states, at least since Lyndon Johnson of Texas left the Senate to become vice president in 1961. These have been Mike Mansfield of Minnesota (21st), Robert Byrd of West Virginia (38th), George Mitchell of Maine (41st), Tom Daschle of South Dakota (46th) and now Harry Reid of Nevada (35th).

The conventional wisdom for this pattern has been twofold, and reflects decisions that individual senators must make about whether it’s possible to secure their own seats while also seeking advancement within the institution of the Senate itself.

The first issue is that being a senator from a larger state can place dramatically greater demands from a vastly larger and more diverse number of voters and constituencies.  Consider that a senator from California (with a population of 38.8 million) has nearly 14 times the number of constituents as one from Nevada (2.8 million). Or that a senator from Texas (26.9 million) has about 31 times as many constituents as a senator from South Dakota (850,000). Inevitably, successfully securing statewide reelection in a large state entails  many more events to attend, hands to shake and groups to placate, as well as far more state-level issues and controversies and personalities to keep track of.

The second, and related, issue is that the cost of running for reelection also grows exponentially in the larger states which, logically enough, also include the biggest and costliest media markets. And while it’s true that there’s a lot more money available to be collected in, say, Florida than Nebraska, that money nonetheless still must be raised, with all of the attendant time and energy that such fundraising requires.

Thus, the upshot of this pattern has been that big-state senators have had to focus so much on their own states that it has been harder for them to rise through the ranks of the Senate as an institution into a leadership role. (The same logic does not necessarily apply to the House, where every district is roughly the same size.)

Now the indefatigable Schumer now seems poised to break this pattern. New York is the fourth most-populous state, after California, Texas and Florida, and is a place of extraordinary complexities and challenges — even just within the confines of its largest city. But Schumer is a master strategist and a veteran fundraiser who has won reelection twice — by margins of 33 percentage points in 2010 and a staggering 47 points in 2004 — while managing to be the Democrats’ No. 3 in the Senate since 2006.

By positioning himself now as the likely next Democratic leader — which also shores up his already extremely favorable bid to retain his own seat in New York — Schumer can focus on winning back control of the Senate for his party. After all, Schumer may want to succeed Reid — but as the majority, not the minority, leader of the U.S. Senate.

Smith is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute; an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and New York University; and author of Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government.

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