Gillibrand Can Be Beaten

Hillary Clinton’s appointment as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State earlier this year has created a rare election scenario in New York for this year’s Congressional midterm elections. New York voters will go to the polls in November to elect both of their United States Senators in the same election. It is the first time since the 1996 Senate election in Kansas, which ended a string of three straight elections years in which voters in one state elected two Senators.

Democratic incumbent Chuck Schumer is a virtual lock to win his third term.  But New York Republicans sense a real opportunity to take the other Senate seat.  Incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand will be standing for election to the Senate for the first time after being appointed to the seat by troubled New York Governor David Paterson.  

Gillibrand is a former moderate congresswoman from New York’s 20th district.  During her House tenure, she was a member of the Blue Dog coalition.  Gillibrand supported gun rights, receiving a perfect score from the National Rifle Association for her first-term voting record on the issue.  She also opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants, voting in favor of a proposal to strip federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” that refused to enforce federal immigration laws.  On same sex marriage, the Human Rights Coalition, a gay rights advocacy group, ranked Gillibrand last among New York Democrats.

These moderate positions may have fit her more conservative upstate congressional district, but they have made Gillibrand’s election to statewide office in deep-blue New York much more difficult.

Despite Gillibrand’s vulnerabilities, however, New York Republicans have as yet not been successful in fielding a candidate to run against her.  The three most talked about names to date have been former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former three-term governor George Pataki, and Nassau County Congressman Peter King.

After a long flirtation with races for governor and Senate, Giuliani announced two weeks ago that he would not be a candidate for either office, throwing his support behind the Republicans’ only announced candidate for governor, former U.S. Representative Rick Lazio.

Pataki has reportedly been flirting with a Senate run since early last year.  But he has remained publicly mum on the possibility.  Pataki does have legislative experience.  Before being elected governor in an upset over Mario Cuomo in 1994, Pataki served as a state Assemblyman for eight years and was serving in his first term in the state Senate.  

Polls of a prospective match up between Pataki and Gillibrand show the incumbent Senator and the former governor in a virtual dead heat.
While Pataki remains coy on the future, Giuliani’s decision may have spurred King to reconsider his earlier decision to forgo a Senate campaign.

Appearing on Don Imus’ nationally syndicated radio show on Monday, King acknowledged that he was taking a fresh look at making a Senate race in the wake of Giuliani’s announcement.  But the nine-term Congressman and current ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee noted a host of reasons weighing against a Gillibrand challenge.

“Being the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, I’ve been in a position to get a lot done for the city and the state.” King said. “To [run for Senate], I’d have to give up the House seat. I’d have to run all over the state over the next year when I couldn’t really be doing anything for homeland security, and I’d have to raise about $30 or $40 million.”

King also noted that even if he were to win the seat, he would be up for election again in 2012 since Gillibrand’s seat is a special election to fill the remaining two years of Clinton’s term.  Still, staying in the House means facing election in 2012 anyway, and King may ultimately find the combination of a vulnerable Democrat incumbent in the favorable electoral atmosphere for Republicans expected in 2010 too tempting to pass up.

New York State GOP Chairman Ed Cox said he was looking forward to more candidates declaring for both the governor’s and Senate races following Giuliani’s decision to sit out the election.  Against a relatively weak incumbent like Gillibrand, there is still time for a Republican of high name recognition to mount a strong challenge.  But just as many party insiders were lamenting Giuliani’s indecision through the summer and fall, Republicans will begin to get anxious if the party does not produce a serious contender for what may be the party’s best chance at electing a Republican U.S. Senator since Schumer defeated Al D’Amato in 1998.