Gillibrand’s Vulnerable, at Least in Theory

Posted November 30, 2009 at 6:33pm

No matter what Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) does, the freshman from New York has not been able to scare off talk of a big-name 2010 challenge, either in the primary or the general election. However, New York political observers and party activists remain deeply skeptical that any of the prominent politicians now mulling a possible Senate candidacy will ultimately run, in part because of the head start that Gillibrand has gotten on fundraising and in consolidating Democratic support.

On the Democratic side, officials said politicians such as Bill Thompson, New York City’s outgoing comptroller who lost by a surprisingly narrow margin to Michael Bloomberg (I) in November’s mayoral election, and former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. would have a hard time gaining traction in a primary given Gillibrand’s success in sewing up the backing of many of the party’s big names and constituencies.

Just in the past few weeks, she has received endorsements from Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a staunch member of the party’s liberal wing from New York City, and Rep. Paul Tonko of upstate, bringing to 19 her total number of endorsements from the state’s Congressional delegation.

Neither Thompson nor Ford have ruled out a campaign, but neither have made direct contact with the New York Democratic Party to talk about a run.

Few Republicans in New York or Washington, D.C., meanwhile, are holding their breath that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Gov. George Pataki will run in 2010.

In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between prospective candidates’ name recognition and the likelihood that they will run.

On the Democratic side, Suffolk County Legislator Jon Cooper is the politician most seriously considering a primary challenge to Gillibrand at the moment, and he intends to announce his decision Dec. 14. Republicans Liz Feld, mayor of the Hudson Valley town of Larchmont and an unsuccessful state Senate candidate in 2008, and Port Authority Commissioner Bruce Blakeman have reached out to state GOP and Conservative Party officials, though they have yet to discuss their prospective candidacies with party officials in Washington.

None of the three is likely to strike fear in the hearts of Gillibrand’s campaign staff, though the Democrat still cannot afford to take anything for granted.

Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate seat in January by Gov. David Paterson (D), has a number of inherent weaknesses that make her a tantalizing target, at least on the surface. Most attractive to potential challengers, observers say, is the fact that she is in her first term and has never run for statewide office. “The first time around is always the time to go after somebody, so sure she’s not going to walk into the job,— said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “The only way you gain statewide recognition is to run statewide.—

Indeed, despite a seemingly nonstop flow of party endorsements or press conferences, Gillibrand has made limited gains in the polls since joining the Senate’s ranks.

An October Siena College poll had Gillibrand’s favorable rating at 28 percent to 26 percent unfavorable. Forty-six percent of New York voters had no opinion. A November Marist poll found that 51 percent of New Yorkers rated Gillibrand’s job performance as fair or poor, while 25 percent gave her an excellent or good rating and 24 percent had no opinion.

It is poll numbers like those that have caught the attention of would-be opponents.

Manhattan-based state Assemblyman Jonathan Bing (D) said that while it’s clear Gillibrand is “working very hard to introduce herself to her constituents around the state, she has yet to develop that effort into strong poll numbers.— But like Carroll, Bing expected that to change as the campaign got under way. Right now, Gillibrand’s activities just don’t generate the same interest “as a state Senate that is having difficulty getting its act together or a governor who has disappointing poll numbers of his own.—

Bing, an ally of Rep. Carolyn Maloney who at one time was considering her own primary challenge to Gillibrand, also expressed doubts that much of the state Democratic establishment would rally around a primary challenger to Gillibrand at this point, given the roster of tough statewide races that the party is already looking at. “I think it would be very hard for them to draw financial or elected official support at this point,— Bing said.

New state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs was also less than encouraging. “I don’t think that at the end of the day— taking Gillibrand on will be “an easy thing to do. People look at the poll numbers and right now hers are not as high as I’m sure they will be,— he said. “There will be people who look at it and then take a look at the money you need to raise and then the fundraising limits … and it becomes less and less attractive.— Gillibrand had already stockpiled $4.2 million in her campaign account as of Sept. 30.

Ford, in particular, would have a challenge, Bing and Jacobs said, given his lack of state ties after moving to New York following his 2006 defeat in the Tennessee Senate race. “I don’t know that he’s got much of a deep connection here in New York,— Jacobs said.

Republicans say its not just Gillibrand’s polling, though, that makes her vulnerable.

“Clearly she is unknown, that’s No. 1. No. 2, she has flipped on every given issue so I think she’s weakened herself upstate where initially that was her strength,— said Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, which usually co-endorses Republican state candidates. Long recently met with Blakeman and Feld, and said Blakeman is all but in the race while Feld is still “seriously contemplating it.— Blakeman has run statewide, losing the New York comptroller’s race in 1998.

But neither has the stature of Giuliani or Pataki, the two biggest names in the New York GOP and the wish-list candidates of many party insiders.

Long said he has not met with either Giuliani or Pataki. “If either one of them was to run, they would be serious candidates, but I don’t see any movement on either of their parts,— Long said.

One influential Republican, former Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, is still holding out hope that Giuliani will take a stab at the Senate race.

In fact, he has been trying to recruit Giuliani to run, though he admits he has been met by some doubts from the former mayor and his close allies.

When asked whether he thought Giuliani would be suited for a legislative rather than executive role, Molinari said, “That’s all I hear from Rudy and his close friends.— Molinari has argued, to the contrary, that “There’s not that much difference from the posts. … The fact of the matter is today there aren’t too many stars in the United States Senate.— He said Giuliani “would be one that would rise to the top immediately.—

Molinari said he expects Giuliani to make a decision “any day now— because he would need to begin fundraising right away for a race that could cost $30 million or more. His decision will not, Molinari predicted, be influenced by whether Gillibrand gets a challenger in the primary. “No, that’s not his style at all,— Molinari said.