New York GOP Facing Empire-Sized Dilemma

Posted June 15, 2009 at 6:09pm

It’s looking more and more likely that New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney is going to challenge appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in next year’s Democratic primary.

But will the GOP be able to take advantage of the Democratic discord?

Two well-known Republicans, former Gov. George Pataki and Rep. Peter King, continue to publicly ponder running for Gillibrand’s seat in 2010. But it’s hard to find any political professionals who are convinced that either is going to pull the trigger. And there don’t appear to be any strong GOP alternatives on the horizon.

“Carolyn Maloney comes at [Gillibrand] from the left,— said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former New York political reporter. “Could the Republicans come at her from the right? Eh, it’s hard to say.—

Republican Senate leaders in recent months have described New York as one of the unexpected Democratic strongholds where they may be very competitive next year. Gillibrand’s appointment in January created an uproar in many liberal circles, and it has long seemed inevitable that she would face a tough primary.

Adding to the Republicans’ unexpected optimism about the Senate seat is the general crisis gripping state government in New York. Gov. David Paterson (D), who appointed Gillibrand and is himself up for a full term next year, couldn’t get elected dogcatcher, if recent polls are to be believed. He could face a nasty primary of his own in 2010, and in the meantime is being buffeted by the state’s ballooning budget deficit and Democrats’ desperate attempts to keep control of the state Senate.

One consequence of the dysfunction in Albany is that Pataki, who left office after three terms with fairly low approval ratings at the end of 2006, may be looking better to voters.

“The big winner in this fiasco is George Pataki’s legacy,— said Robert Ryan, a New York GOP strategist who was the manager of Pataki’s first gubernatorial campaign in 1994.

But if Pataki is hungering to be a Senator, there isn’t much evidence of it yet. He spoke with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) earlier this year and promised to consider the race, but according to a Pataki spokesman, he has no timetable for making a decision.

“Nothing that’s happened externally or internally has changed where he’s at,— the spokesman, Dave Catalfamo, said Monday. “He’s flattered to have been asked by the Senatorial committee, and it’s something he’s considering.—

Because he’s so well-known, Pataki probably has the luxury of time when it comes to deciding what to do — and time will reveal just how bloody the Democratic race becomes.

“He only goes when he feels the time’s right,— Ryan said.

And while Pataki is described as being in some ways itching to get back into public service, it’s hard to say — despite his 10 years as a state legislator — whether he’d be comfortable in something other than an executive role.

“Pataki’s out. He used to be governor,— Carroll said. “Now he’s making a lot of money. Is he satisfied?—

Finally, there is the question of Pataki’s friendship with Gillibrand’s father, Douglas Rutnik.

When Pataki was elected in 1994, it ended a 20-year run of Democrats controlling the governor’s mansion. So there weren’t a surplus of Republican mentors in Albany for the new GOP governor to turn to.

But Rutnik, a politically wired lawyer who had married into a prominent Albany Democratic family, became a friend and ally of the governor’s after also befriending then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), one of Pataki’s political patrons (as a college student, Gillibrand had been an intern for D’Amato). Rutnik, after divorcing Gillibrand’s mother, dated Zenia Mucha, who was a top aide to both D’Amato and Pataki, and when Paterson announced that he was appointing Gillibrand to the Senate, D’Amato stood at the new Senator’s side.

Despite these ties, several New York Republicans said Pataki’s connection to Rutnik is unlikely to sway his decision on a Senate bid. Rutnik did not respond to a message left Monday at his Albany law office.

King, meanwhile, refuses to rule out a statewide run, but it continues to be apparent that he has less enthusiasm for the idea than he did when it looked like Paterson would appoint Caroline Kennedy to the Senate vacancy. The Congressman continues to travel the state, appearing at Republican functions and meeting with party activists.

“It’s going to be a question of money,— King said Monday. “I’ve told leaders that I’ll make a decision by Labor Day.—

King said Pataki called him in January to urge him to run against Kennedy but that they have not spoken about 2010 since Gillibrand got the appointment.

“I certainly wouldn’t ask him not to run,— King said of the former governor.

There does not, at this point, appear to be a B or even a C list for Republicans in the event that Pataki and King don’t run.

“Every day that passes, it looks increasingly likely that the seat’s going to stay blue,— said a national Democratic strategist.

But Democratic infighting could still provide the GOP with an opening depending on how bad it gets — which is why Democratic leaders from President Barack Obama on down worked so hard to persuade Rep. Steve Israel (D) not to challenge Gillibrand. Earlier this month, Maloney’s camp released a poll on a hypothetical Democratic Senate primary that was noteworthy because it showed many lines of attack that Maloney will use against Gillibrand if she decides to make the race — attacks that Republicans are sure to pick up in the general election if Gillibrand survives the primary.

Even if Maloney doesn’t run, Gillibrand now has a primary opponent. Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist who took 18 percent of the vote against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2006 Democratic contest, threw his hat in the ring last week.

Tasini on Monday launched a Web site, Opendebatenewyork.org, which includes a petition calling for Democratic Party insiders to stop trying to clear the field for Gillibrand.

“We are trying to give voice to the many New Yorkers who are appalled at efforts by party insiders to curtail democracy and ram through a candidate who has never been chosen by the voters for the seat she currently holds,— Tasini said. “We live in a democracy, not a monarchy.—

Despite the thunder on the left, Gillibrand continues to rack up key endorsements. On Monday, the 600,000-strong New York State United Teachers announced it was supporting her. NYSUT is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers — whose president, Randi Weingarten, like Maloney and other ambitious Democrats, angled for the Senate appointment last winter.

In a statement, NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said Gillibrand “is working tirelessly and effectively with President Obama and Sen. [Charles] Schumer to save jobs for working families, keep teachers in the classroom and grow the state’s economy.—