ALBANY — Whether it's calling for pandemic relief for struggling dairy farmers or angling for funding to bring a computer chip manufacturing plant to the region, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has been consistent with messaging designed to let upstate residents know their interests are his interests.
As Senate Majority leader, the 70-year-old Schumer, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and President Joe Biden, is one of the nation's three most powerful Democratic elected officials.
Though he won his last race in 2016 by taking 70% of the vote, and has no opponent in sight as he faces another re-election in 2022, Schumer has been busy when Congress is in recess, checking off the boxes by visiting all regions of the state as part of his annual mission to spend time in all 62 counties of New York.
Schumer has been effective at winning over voters with his "willingness to listen," whether they are conservatives or liberals, said Larry Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
"Chuck Schumer has nothing to worry about in terms of a challenge from any wing of his party," Levy said. "He has managed over many years to straddle multiple geographies and ideologies, on both general and specific issues."
Schumer's political popularity in New York hasn't stopped the National Republican Senatorial Committee from using him to try to drive a wedge between progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party.
"Chuck Schumer’s title may be Majority Leader, but the reality is he’s taking his marching orders from the party’s far left wing," the committee said in a new attack on the senator this week.
Contending Schumer "frets" a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-Queens, the GOP committee painted Schumer as looking out for his own political hide at the expense of moderate Democrats by "driving legislation leftward and putting President Biden's agenda in peril."
Ocasio-Cortez stunned the New York political world in 2018 when she defeated then-incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, a longtime Democratic power broker, by upsetting him in a primary. Her victory, along with several similar upsets in legislative primaries in 2020, has left many incumbents far less prone to take opponents for granted, since voter turnout in primaries has generally been low.
The ideological differences within the Democratic Party will continue to play out, but will be far more prominent in Assembly races and the contest for governor next year, without significantly impacting Schumer, said Gerald Benjamin, a retired SUNY New Paltz political science professor who has followed New York politics for more than 50 years.
"He is a bread-and-butter guy," said Benjamin, noting that Schumer played a leadership role in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that in New York has benefited the state, county and municipal governments as well as school districts. "He has been delivering the goods for New York."
Rumors that Ocasio-Cortez might challenge Schumer were stoked last year by then President Donald Trump, who predicted in a provocative tweet that she would defeat the incumbent in a Democratic primary.
In Washington, Schumer has been the most high-profile Democrat to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana at the federal level. Biden has continued to oppose that proposal.
On another front, Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, have pressured Biden to agree to canceling $50,000 in student debt per borrower. Biden has not commented on the plan, though Schumer has signaled he will continue to make the case for that level of student loan forgiveness.
In the North Country, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said Schumer's personal touch echoes the style of the late state Sen. Ron Stafford, a Republican from the region, in terms of his ability to connect with voters of all persuasions.
"When you first meet Senator Schumer, you feel like you really know him," said Jones. He noted Schumer visits farms and manufacturing plants in the North Country with frequency.
Schumer, a Brooklyn native who continues to reside in the New York City borough, has yet to declare his political intentions for 2022, though many Democrats expect him to seek re-election to a fifth term.
"Senator Schumer absolutely loves representing the people of New York and accomplishing meaningful improvements for their lives, including delivering hundreds of billions of dollars just this year alone to beat back COVID, re-energize our economy, and rebuild New York,” said the senator's spokeswoman, Allison Biasotti.
In addition to being a national leader of his party now, Schumer also benefits by Democrats having a dominant enrollment advantage over Republicans in New York, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll.
To be competitive against Schumer, a Republican challenger "would have to clean up among independents," while a Democrat would be seen as setting the stage for a "very divisive" primary.
"Barring any unforeseen developments, he should be in good shape," Miringoff said.
In next year's mid-term elections, the GOP is hoping to regain control of the U.S. Senate. A partisan poll released by the National Republican Senatorial Committee indicated that the party is blaming the Biden administration for a rise in illegal immigration, rising inflation and increases in government spending.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org