The Meaning of Chuck’s Public Defense of Kirsten

The way people who know Chuck Schumer see it, that story on the front page of today’s Times about how the senator has grown defensive of Kirsten Gillibrand was part of a clear, don’t-even-think-about-it message to the handful of Democratic elected officials contemplating a run for Senate.

According to two former Schumer aides I talked to, the message that the senior senator is throwing his weight behind Gillibrand should have an impact on her challengers' calculations because Schumer, if he so chooses, can seriously damage the political campaigns of those challengers and make their day jobs considerably more difficult. 

“He can freeze money and institutional support in a big way,” said one former aide, who figured that Schumer would send the back-off signal both through the press and also through personal calls. 

Another former Schumer aide said, “He can close off money. Bundlers are always happy not to have to raise money. And Chuck is one of the premier Democratic fund-raisers in the United States and in New York, and as such he holds some influence over who these money people support." 

There is a perception among former staffers who still keep tabs on their old office that Schumer's perception of Gillibrand's performance is much less upbeat than the Times article indicated. (“He’s been disappointed in her,” said one former aide.) But they also agree with Schumer that she has strong fund-raising skills and that a primary is a real danger to a Democrat ahead of a general election.

In response to these quotes, Schumer's office sent me the following statement from chief of staff Mike Lynch: "I don't know who these unnamed former aides are but they clearly are no longer privy to Senator Schumer's thinking on this matter or anything else."

Schumer’s defense of Gillibrand, several former aides said—and as the Times article suggested—probably owed more to his own interests than to any personal affection or respect toward Gillibrand.

For Schumer, who earned the loyalties of a significant faction of senators he helped elect as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, it would be deeply embarrassing—not to mention damaging to his potential designs on the job of majority leader—to lose a Democratic seat in his home state.

For that reason, one former aide said, it would be likely that Schumer’s people would be calling the likely supporters of, say, Representative Steve Israel with the message that they should hold their fire.     

“The guy has become an extremely powerful force in the Senate and unless you feel very strongly about Steve Israel or Carolyn Maloney, you probably don’t want pick a fight with him.”

Another former Schumer aide pointed out that, historically, Schumer has been hesitant to meddle in New York politics the way his predecessor, Al D’Amato, did. And for a politician who rarely utters a harsh word about another New York public official, “it doesn’t make sense to go out of his way to antagonize anyone on her behalf,” said the aide.

But the Times article seemed to mark a change in approach by sending a very clear message to those potential contenders.

“He never picks fights with people in New York and he has gone out of his way his whole career not to,” said another aide. “Maybe we’re seeing a new Chuck.”

The Meaning of Chuck’s Public Defense of Kirsten