Is Charles Schumer Vulnerable?

The stunning and convincing victory by Sen. Scott Brown last month signaled to Republicans nationwide that any Democrat was potentially vulnerable in the upcoming 2010 mid-term congressional elections.  If Brown could capture the Senate seat held by the Kennedy family for most of the last fifty years in deep-blue Massachusetts, the theory goes, then every seat is in play.  But only the most optimistic of partisans would have applied that theory to the Senate seat held by New York’s Charles Schumer. 

That is, until this week.

Marist College released a poll on Monday showing Schumer’s approval rating slipping below 50 percent for the first time in nine years.  Forty-seven percent of New Yorkers now approve of Schumer’s job performance, a drop of eleven points since last September and off four points in just the last two weeks, according to the poll.

Schumer was elected to the Senate in 1998 after five terms in the House, defeating incumbent Republican Al D’Amato.  He was reelected in 2004 with 71 percent of the vote, outpolling the competition by nearly 3 million votes, the largest margin of victory ever in New York. 

As the Senate’s number three ranking Democrat, and the architect of the Democrats’ current 59-41 majority as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2008 cycle, Schumer is enormously influential in Washington.  And with a campaign war chest of close to $20 million, Schumer’s seat should be among the safest of incumbent Democrats.  But that is not deterring one prominent Republican from giving serious consideration to taking on Schumer, calling a potential campaign against one of the most liberal members of the Senate, “a noble cause.” 

Larry Kudlow, economist, columnist, television and radio personality, and former staffer in the Reagan White House, is reported to be mulling a challenge.  The New York Daily News reported this week that New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, a personal friend of Kudlow’s, has discussed a potential run with him and considers Kudlow to be “dead serious” about a campaign.

“I know him a long time.  He’s not a guy who just picks up the phone. That’s not his [way],” Long said.  “I just think he would be the right guy to run against Chuck Schumer, and in this climate, with his background, I think he would ignite national attention. He would be able to match him and raise a tremendous amount of money.”

Kudlow is also reported to have had a meeting with New York State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox about a race.  Appearing recently on Curtis Sliwa’s local radio show, Kudlow remained non-committal.  “I’m very honored to be considered, and I’m going to give all this careful attention,” he said.

In addition to the advantages of incumbency, Schumer has a reputation in New York for tireless constituent service.  He is reported to take personal pride in visiting each of the state’s sixty-two counties at least once a year.  He is also famous for calling news conferences to highlight local concerns on Sundays, an otherwise slow news day that guarantees him lots of coverage in the local media.

Ironically, Schumer’s falling approval ratings may be due in part to his position in the Senate Democratic leadership.  As one of the public faces of an unpopular Democratic agenda — from runaway government spending to federal bailouts for the financial and auto industries to the attempted takeover of health care — Schumer may be falling victim to the perception that he has lost touch with the voters back home.

He would not be the first or most prominent Democrat to do so.  Sen. John Thune beat former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004 after three years as the top Democrat in Washington.  Thune made an issue of Daschle’s support for Democratic priorities at odds with his more conservative state of South Dakota in the campaign.  Similarly this year, current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s reelection bid is in big trouble in his home state.  Reid’s approval rating has fallen through the floor, standing at just thirty-four percent in the most recent survey and he polls far behind either of two potential Republican challengers.

Republicans in New York have had their sights set on New York’s junior Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is also up for election this year. But the party has been unable thus far to attract a high-profile candidate to challenge her.  Gillibrand is standing for election to the Senate for the first time, having been appointed to the seat last year by troubled New York Governor David Paterson.  Compared to Schumer, she is a relative unknown and a much easier target. There is still time for a strong challenger for her seat to emerge. 

Schumer, on the other hand, would ordinarily draw token opposition in a normal year.  But his apparent slide in the polls, and a Kudlow candidacy, could present New York Republicans with the unexpected surprise of two competitive Senate races in one of the country’s most liberal states.