The Other Problem Democrat in New York?

rsz gillibrand The Other Problem Democrat in New York?

Does it occur to anyone else that the White House is worried about the wrong big-name New York Democrat?

It’s been almost two weeks since we learned that Barack Obama and his team were pressuring David Paterson to get out of next year’s governor’s race, and still, the move makes little sense—not because their assessment of Paterson’s political standing was wrong (it isn’t), but because Paterson was already on course to exit on his own terms, probably a few months down the line. It was like calling the fire department to put out a birthday cake.

Somewhat lost amid the Paterson-Obama drama, though, was the release of yet another poll showing meager returns on the governor’s January appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate. Just 26 percent of New Yorkers, according to the September 17 Marist survey, view their new senator’s job performance favorably—despite a concerted seven-month effort by national and state Democrats to boost her standing.

In fact, the Marist found Gillibrand losing ground over the summer in a head-to-head matchup with George Pataki. In the newest poll, she trails the former governor 48 to 44 percent—an eight-point swing from July, when Gillibrand was up by four points.

No, this isn’t enough—yet—for Gillibrand and her all-in Democratic supporters to declare an emergency. The 2010 general election is still far off, she’s avoided a serious primary challenge, and she hasn’t begun to spend her hefty war chest on television ads. Plus, New York remains a solidly Democratic state.

But it’s also true that she should be doing better—much better—than this by now, especially when you consider all the help she’s received from her party’s most powerful figures. (Remember how Chuck Schumer made sure Gillibrand got to introduce Sonia Sotomayor at her conformation hearings? And remember how Gillibrand made a mess of it?)  At the very least, she should be showing slight progress in every new poll—not falling behind a not-particularly-beloved former Republican governor.

When Paterson handed her the seat, it seemed a safe assumption that New Yorkers would slowly but surely warm up to Gillibrand. She was capable, attractive and she had the right party label—and with the White House (and Schumer) running interference on her behalf, well, how hard could it be?

But it’s now actually conceivable that Gillibrand will be vulnerable next fall.

First, the basic general-election recipe that’s worked perfectly for Democrats in the Northeast since 1994—relentlessly tie your opponent to Gingrich/Bush/the Republican Congress—just won’t fly in ’10, not with Democrats in charge of the White House and both houses of Congress.  National Republican figures remain widely unpopular in New York and throughout the Northeast, but next year’s midterms—for once—won’t be a referendum on them.

With George W. Bush in the White House and the DeLay gang running Congress, blue state voters refused to consider Republicans, even if they liked them individually. This is how Lincoln Chafee, with an approval rating over 60 percent, still lost his Senate seat handily in Rhode Island in 2006. But a Republican like Chafee could actually have room to maneuver in a blue state next year—especially if the economy is still sputtering.

And even if Obama retains decent approval ratings in New York in the fall of ’10, it won’t necessarily insulate Gillibrand. This is just the nature of midterm elections; the benefit of the doubt almost always goes to the opposition party, even if the president isn’t viewed that poorly.

For example: While 1994 was an atrocious year for Democrats, Bill Clinton actually enjoyed solid approval ratings in Massachusetts (one of the very few states where this was the case) and he campaigned in the state that fall. Even so, two Massachusetts Republicans—Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen—managed to hang on to their House seats (which they’d won in scandal-aided flukes two years earlier). This stands as the last time Republicans scored a Congressional victory in the Bay State.

Then there’s the issue of Gillibrand’s potential Republican opposition. Obviously, if the G.O.P. fails to field a credible, well-fund candidate—as was the case in 2006 and 2004—Gillibrand will be safe. But the potentially unique national climate—the first year in a long time when a New York Republican might have a shot at federal office, and probably the last for a long time—could produce a big-name G.O.P. challenger for Gillibrand in ’10.

The working assumption has been that Pataki is roughly as serious about running for the Senate as he was about running for president in 2008, probably less so. In other words, he likes having his name out there, but there’s no way he’s doing it. (Just like Rudy Giuliani with the governor’s race.)

But this assumption is rooted in the belief that a Republican campaign for the U.S. Senate in New York is automatically a kamikaze venture. As he looks around today, though, Pataki might see a path to victory: Democrats are committed to a candidate who’s not catching on, and the climate won’t be the same as ’08 or ’06.

The former governor will be 65 next year. If he ever wants to run for office again, he might conclude that opposing Gillibrand is his best and only shot. It’s now at least imaginable that he will.

There’s also Rudy, who’s being urged by Ed Cox—who just secured the state G.O.P. chairmanship over Giuliani’s vehement objections—to run for the Senate. It’s hard to believe he will (Rudy prefers that people speculate about him running for governor), but you never know.

To be clear: It is still more likely than not that Gillibrand will retain her seat next year. But her rough first eight months on the job have introduced the possibility that one of the state’s few G.O.P. heavyweights might actually oppose her. And if that happens, she could actually be in trouble next fall—enough trouble, perhaps, to make the White House wonder if it should have intervened somewhere else.