The Dwindling Challenge to Gillibrand

One by one, Kirsten Gillibrand’s potential Democratic challengers are removing themselves from the race. Steve Israel, who seemed moments away from jumping in just a week ago, pulled the plug last Friday, and Scott Stringer backed out on Tuesday.

Their decisions, of course, came under considerable duress, with Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer pushing hard to clear the field for Gillibrand. The number of credible prospective challengers is now down to two: Carolyn Maloney and Carolyn McCarthy, and there’s really no chance that both of them will run.

Between the two, Maloney is the only one who really wants to join the race. She fiercely jockeyed to win the appointment to the seat earlier this year and, from the moment David Paterson picked Gillibrand instead, she’s done her best to sow dissension within the party. Just last week, Maloney confidently asserted that “I am sure [Gillibrand] will face a Democratic primary.”

That was easy to say back then, when Israel was all set to take the plunge—a development that would have undermined efforts to clear the field and made it easy for Maloney to follow suit. Now, though, her decision is much more complicated.

On the one hand, the 2010 race remains her last best chance to score a promotion to the Senate. Maloney will be 62 years old next year. That’s just one year younger than Nita Lowey was in 2000, when her plans to seek Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Senate seat were ruined by Hillary Clinton’s surprise emergence. Lowey took the disappointment in stride, but surely Maloney has noticed: She never got another chance to run—and now, at the age of 71, she’s not about to get one, either.

That will almost certainly be Maloney’s fate, too, if she bows out now. Chuck Schumer won’t be going anywhere for another two or three decades, and if Gillibrand can win in November 2010, she’ll be a pretty safe bet for 2012 and for years to come after that. So if Maloney, now in her ninth term in the House, is ever going to run for the Senate, it has to be now.

But, with all of the political weight coalescing behind Gillibrand, the risk would be enormous. Maloney has been banking on the party being splintered, thanks to Gillibrand’s well-documented moderation when she represented the 20th District in the House. Maloney has done her best to encourage the interest groups and liberal voters who have been so vocally miffed at Gillibrand’s selection, but Obama and Schumer have now committed themselves to bringing those folks into line.

Maloney can still take solace in Gillibrand’s ongoing struggle to improve her dismal poll numbers, but a united and activated Democratic establishment could be the cure that Gillibrand has been seeking. Gillibrand has already proven herself an adept fund-raiser, but with Barack and Chuck (and Hillary and Bill—and the D.S.C.C., too) on board, she can now assemble the kind of overwhelming financial advantage that, for example, Schumer enjoyed when he thrashed Geraldine Ferraro by 26 points in 1998.

Plus, Gillibrand is doing her best to find religion on the left’s pet causes. Her gun-control opposition infuriated liberals when she was picked, but as a senator, she’s been channeling Sarah Brady. It reeks of opportunism, but the fact that she’s now voting the “right” way may be enough to keep liberal interest groups off her back—especially with Obama and Schumer are urging them to.

If Maloney challenges Gillibrand and loses, then her political career will essentially be over. If the Senate is something she’s always dreamed about, that may be an acceptable risk for her.

But if a Senate campaign looks like a doomed mission, she might find her House seat a nice consolation prize, mainly because of her perch as the fourth-ranking Democrat on the powerful Financial Services Committee. Two of the three Democrats above her are over 70 years old (Maxine Waters and Paul Kanjorski), and Barney Frank, the chairman, is 69. Granted, if just one of them sticks around for another 15 or 20 years, Maloney would probably be blocked from ever assuming the chairmanship. But she is at least within striking distance—and the odds of someday owning the Financial Services gavel may be better than the odds of taking out Gillibrand next year.

Frank, the committee chairman, probably understands Maloney’s frustration. He’s been waiting to run for the Senate in Massachusetts for about two decades—and when John Kerry seemed (as of 7:00 on Election Night) to win the presidency in 2004, Frank was ready to jump in the race. But if a Senate seat were now to open, the consensus in Massachusetts is that Frank wouldn’t run; the Financial Services gavel has made him a major player, bigger than any freshman senator could be.

Only if Maloney doesn’t run does her fellow Carolyn, McCarthy of Long Island, enter into the equation. McCarthy has shown no appetite for the Senate itself, but is a passionate crusader for gun control. Thus far, she seems unpersuaded by Gillibrand’s newfound commitment to her pet issue and has maintained her willingness to run next year—if no one else does.

Compared to Maloney, McCarthy has an almost nonexistent campaign treasury. And her willingness to subject herself to the financial and political rigors that a statewide campaign requires is unknown. Her life story would make her a compelling candidate, but would she have the money to even begin to tell it? Gillibrand could have $10 million on hand by next year. As ludicrous as it sounds to true believers, she could use that money to make herself—and not McCarthy—the candidate of gun control.

It has been 31 years since an appointed Democratic senator was defeated in a primary— September 1978, when Maryon Allen, the widow of Alabama’s James B. Allen, was upset by fellow Democrat Donald Stewart. (A few months before that, Montana’s Paul Hatfield, who’d infuriated Montanans by backing Jimmy Carter’s Panama Canal treaties, was ousted by a young congressman named Max Baucus in a Democratic primary.

Gillibrand’s numbers still aren’t pretty to look at, but that streak is looking safer by the day.

The Dwindling Challenge to Gillibrand