Democrats for Rudy?

One reason that Steve Israel, Carolyn Maloney, Jerry Nadler and every other New York Democrat who yearns to serve in the U.S. Senate someday may be particularly thankful next Thursday: Rudy Giuliani and his apparent readiness to challenge Kirsten Gillibrand next year.

Not that they’ll say it out loud, of course. Assuming Giuliani does jump in the Senate race (and it remains very possible that he won’t), all of the above-mentioned Democrats will spend the next 12 months testifying to the vital, irreplaceable nature of Gillibrand’s Senate service and insisting that Rudy II would be a disaster for the state and nation.

That’s what they’ll be doing in public. What they’ll be thinking and saying in private is a different matter – because, as they surely realize, their hopes of ever making it to the Senate will largely depend on Giuliani knocking off Gillibrand.

If he does, the Democratic nomination for 2012 (when Gillibrand’s seat will be up for a full term) will be wide open and they’ll all be free to run. There’ll be no pesky, heavy-handed White House running interference for an appointed incumbent, as is the case now.

But if Rudy runs and loses, then Gillibrand will essentially lock up the Democratic nomination and the 2012 general election on the spot. Having absorbed the G.O.P.’s toughest blow in a rough year for Democratic incumbents, she’ll solidify her own party’s support and scare off credible Republicans.

And, given her youth and the state’s Democratic bent, Gillibrand would probably then hang on to the seat for several terms – for 20 years or more, perhaps – blocking Israel and Co. from ever seeking it. Nor are those ambitious Democrats likely in that time to get a shot at the state’s other Senate seat – not with the popular Chuck Schumer (who turns 59 next Monday) content to hold it for a few more decades.

For New York Democrats eyeing the Senate, Gillibrand’s ’10 fate is the single most important variable in their long-term planning.

In terms of these Democrats’ self-interest, Rudy is a godsend, because before his emergence this week, Gillibrand – despite her glaring faults and vulnerabilities – seemed on course to win by default next year. The White House, with a big assist from Schumer, had muscled every potentially threatening Democrat out of the way, clearing the primary field for her. And neither of the two Republicans capable of beating her – Giuliani or George Pataki – seemed serious about running.

This couldn’t have been for Israel and Maloney, and every other Democrat who was intimidated out of challenging Gillibrand in next year’s primary, to swallow. When they cleared the way for her, they (and everyone else) expected that it was just a matter of time before Gillibrand would raise her numbers and emerge as a safe incumbent for the ’10 election. But she hasn’t. Her personal popularity and job approval numbers are meager. She runs even with Pataki in head-to-heads. And Giuliani is thrashing her by 14 points, according to a Marist survey released on Thursday.

Clearly, she could have been beaten in a primary. But it’s too late now for the Democrats who passed. Which means that between now and next November, they can do two things: (1) kick themselves; and (2) wait to see if Giuliani wins.

Rudy’s odds of winning are good. As the Marist poll shows, he’ll start out as the front-runner if he gets in. And, unlike every other Republican whose run for federal office in New York since 1994, he won’t be saddled with an unpopular G.O.P. president or Congress. With unemployment high and the Democrats running Washington, the ’10 electorate will be older and more conservative than it has been in years. In short, all of the ingredients are in place for a Giuliani victory.

Then, the question would be whether Rudy seeks a full term in 2012. Some believe that he wouldn’t – that he’s only interested in the Senate as a way of posting a comeback victory in advance of a follow-up White House bid in 2012. This seems far-fetched, given the epic failure of his ’08 effort (a John Connally-esque $57 million spent for one delegate). But who knows: maybe he’d be crazy enough to try it. In that case, the winner of the wide open ’12 Democratic primary would be favored to win the seat in the fall.

But even if a Senator Giuliani were to seek re-election in ’12, the Democratic candidate would have a fighting chance. With Barack Obama on the ballot (and with the economy potentially improved), it could be a much stronger year for Democrats than ’10 is shaping up to be. Unseating Rudy wouldn’t be easy, but it also wouldn’t be suicide.

The bottom line is that every Democrat who passed on next year’s Senate race will have a chance to run in 2012 if Gillibrand loses next year. But if she wins, they’ll all be locked out, probably for the rest of their careers. The difference between those two outcomes can be spelled in four letters: R-U-D-Y.