Who’s Afraid of a Primary?

Even her most rabid supporters—there must be a few out there—would have to concede that Senator Krirsten Gillibrand is hardly a household name. A year after her appointment to succeed Hillary Clinton, who left the Senate to become secretary of state, Ms. Gillibrand remains something of a mystery—not a good thing as she prepares to run for election this year.

The White House and top New York Democrats, most prominently Senator Charles Schumer, have discouraged other Democrats from challenging Ms. Gillibrand in a primary. One by one, would-be challengers, including Representatives Carolyn Maloney of the Upper East Side and Long Island’s Carolyn McCarthy, have bowed out of a potential primary. But now another challenger looms. The former Tennessee congressman Harold E. Ford Jr., who moved to New York three years ago after leaving Congress, is openly discussing a possible challenge to Ms. Gillibrand. Mr. Schumer, Congressman Jerrold Nadler and other veteran Democrats are not pleased.

They should be. If they truly believe that Senator Gillibrand is worthy of holding the seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mrs. Clinton, they should welcome the opportunity to show off their protégé. Instead, they seem determined to bully Mr. Ford out of the race, with Mr. Nadler uncharitably describing his fellow Democrat and former colleague as a “disaster.”

Mr. Ford, a potentially attractive candidate, already has some high-level support among donors and has met with aides to Mayor Bloomberg, who is no fan of Senator Gillibrand.

The senator clearly has a problem on her hands. She has failed to make her mark as a legislator, and she is too often viewed as Senator Schumer’s sidekick. If voters perceive that her supporters are protecting her for reasons unknown, her perception problems will only get worse.

The solution, then, is to welcome a challenge and prepare for it. A well-contested primary would increase the senator’s name recognition and, if she won, would enhance her reputation just in time for November’s general election. One thing seems certain: State Republicans will nominate a strong, seasoned candidate for Senate this year, perhaps Long Island Congressman Peter King. If Democrats shield Ms. Gillibrand from a primary, she will remain untested and relatively unknown in the fall.

So if the senator’s supporters are wise, they will do nothing to stop Mr. Ford. They should see his potential candidacy as an opportunity, not as a threat.