The Swift, Brutal Primary Strategy of Kirsten Gillibrand

Earlier this month, Kirsten Gillibrand stood in front of the steps of City Hall to accept the endorsements of two more members of Congress and repeated her standard response to all inquiries related to her facing a potential primary challenge.

"For my part, I am very focused on being the best senator I can be," Gillibrand told The Observer. "And I really do leave the politics to themselves. I think they will take care of themselves."

But she’s preparing, just in case they don’t.

At the moment, it’s Representative Carolyn Maloney who is continuing to present herself as a threat to Gillibrand, comparing her lengthy House tenure with her former colleague's by saying, among other things, "She's, to my knowledge, never passed anything."

Gillibrand's supporters, who are still hoping that Maloney's theatrics will end up having been an exercise in noise-making, point out that the congresswoman hasn't been in a competitive race in 18 years. They say, by contrast, that Gillibrand is just coming into her own as a politician. 

"When she came to meet with us in '05 and said, 'I want to run for Congress,' we said candidly and respectfully, 'We don't think you can win—it doesn't seem like a good idea to us,'" said Howard Wolfson, whose Glover Park Group worked on Gillibrand's ultimately successful race in 2006 and who informally advised Gillibrand during the Senate selection process to fill Hillary Clinton's seat earlier this year. "'Well, I want you to work for us. I'm running because I think I can win.' She has tremendous determination."

Another adviser to Gillibrand said the senator's camp would have a game plan in place were Maloney to run. But the adviser was reluctant to discuss it in detail, except to say that Maloney was a “known quantity” who, by questioning Gillibrand's "character" in a meeting with the Daily News editorial board this week, had already revealed her intention to run a negative campaign.

Gillibrand, the adviser said, still had the element of surprise, a top-tier (and proportionately expensive) campaign team waiting in the wings, and an incumbent’s deep well of political support behind her.    

It’s not hard to imagine what the Gillibrand campaign’s response would look like in practice.

Her campaign would continue to roll out endorsements from Democratic officials, including initial skeptics who have been won over by a combination of Gillibrand’s intense personal lobbying, her substantive shifts to the left and approaches from her well-connected consultants.

As the surrogates heaped on the praise, making Maloney appear increasingly isolated and out of touch with the party, Gillibrand herself would be able to follow what one consultant referred to as "the Schumer model" of campaigning, staying on message—hardest-working mom in the Senate—traveling the state and working relentlessly in Washington to compile a strong legislative record.

And that's where her powerful supporters within the Senate, first among them Chuck Schumer himself, come into play.

Schumer, who is by mutual agreement a primary political mentor to Gillibrand, and who headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for two extremely successful cycles, is in a position to see to it that Gillibrand gets to make high-profile, popular announcements and that her name winds up attached to important legislation.

It should also be noted that Schumer is decidedly not a fan of Carolyn Maloney. Multiple former aides to Schumer recalled that the senator always had a particularly low opinion of her abilities, and that he questioned her seriousness as an official and her motives.

As one former staffer put it, “He thought she was starved for attention."

(Schumer spokesman Josh Vlasto called the assertions “totally untrue.”)

Gillibrand would also be in a position, unlike Maloney, to spend liberally on ads—produced by primary-campaign warriors David Dixon and Rich Davis–reintroducing her to New Yorkers without making mention of David Paterson. She has at her disposal a war chest filled by the likes of Dennis Mehiel, Sally Minard, Bernard Schwartz, Sarah Covner, Gerry Laybourne, Jill Iscol, Toni Sosnoff, Rosina Ruben, Rob Dyson and Hassan Nemazee.

The script: When I first got this job, I know a lot of you didn't know me, but it's been a pleasure listening to and learning about your concerns, and as a result, here are just some of the legislative accomplishments we have been able to do working together.

And so on.

And though having lots of heavyweight, proven consultants and advisers never guaranteed anyone a victory, Gillibrand will have … lots of heavyweight, proven consultants and advisers: Jefrey Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group, which has polled for Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer; Howard Wolfson, the former communications director for Hillary Clinton and current communications director for Michael Bloomberg; Karen Persichilli Keogh, Clinton's former state director and one of New York's most tested operatives; Charlie King, who works with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who recently endorsed Gillibrand; and Roberto Ramirez, a key player in the city's Latino politics. They are all either on the payroll or willing to help, by means overt and covert.

"If you have Wolfson," one veteran Democratic strategist said, "you are going to have some dark arts."

Maybe early, even.

"But what they really want to do is stop her from running," said the strategist. "So it wouldn't shock me to start seeing negative stories about Maloney in the papers. A little bit like what I assume Bloomberg did to Weiner, basically letting him know, ‘This is what you can look forward to.'"

Joe Trippi, who is handling Maloney's campaign calls now, maintained a defiant tone on his potential client's behalf.

"Gillibrand certainly has a bunch of endorsements and the elite consulting class working for her, but she doesn't have what counts, which is standing up and fighting on the issues that matter to New Yorkers," he said.