Carolyn Maloney and the Lure of the Senate

Carolyn Maloney will turn 62 next year, so if serving in the U.S. Senate is the be-all, end-all goal of her career, then she should go ahead and challenge Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary. She’s not likely to get another chance and there’d be nothing worse than living out her life wondering what would have happened if she’d gone for it.

But, as would-be campaign consultants and wannabe members of Congress whisper encouragement in her ear, Ms. Maloney ought to make sure she appreciates exactly what she’s getting herself into.

Obviously, it’s not at all uncommon for a member of the House to run for the Senate; it’s a perfectly natural stepping-stone. But not all House members who run for the Senate are created equal. A number of factors, generally outside the congressperson’s control, dictate the viability of his or her campaign.

For example, a House member from a small state will generally have better odds, since more voters statewide will already know him or her. A good example is Mike Castle, the 70-year-old moderate Republican from Delaware who has served as the state’s lone House representative since 1992 (after an eight-year run as governor before that). Mr. Castle’s name is gold in Delaware, and with an open race for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat on the 2010 docket, the seat is widely considered his if he wants it. (To date, Mr. Castle hasn’t said whether he’ll run.)

Ms. Maloney, by contrast, is one of 29 representatives in New York’s congressional delegation, serving just over three percent of the state’s population. There are states where, proportionally, state senators represent bigger chunks of turf than a House member in New York does. So, whereas Mr. Castle enjoys universal name recognition in Delaware, Ms. Maloney would begin her Senate campaign, according to a recent Quinnipiac survey, with two-thirds of voters having no idea who she is.

Lousy name recognition can, of course, be overcome. When it comes to House members running for the Senate, the recipe usually goes something like this: enter and win a wide-open party primary (or, better yet, run with the party establishment’s backing), then benefit in the fall from having the right party label in the right state in the right year. But this recipe is off-limits to Ms. Maloney, because Ms. Gillibrand is already the national and state Democratic Party’s anointed candidate.

Right now, the impact of this isn’t reflected by the polls; Ms. Gillibrand remains widely unknown and even ran slightly behind Ms. Maloney in the Quinnipiac survey (with a comically high number of undecided voters). But with the party’s financial and organizational machinery engaged on Ms. Gillibrand’s behalf, this won’t be the kind of wide-open contest that provides unknown House members with their best chance of success.

What House members, especially in large states like New York, tend to lose sight of is how anonymous they are to the electorate, even in their own backyards. They rack up massive victory margins in their House campaigns and consider it a sign of the public’s adoration when it’s usually more a reflection of apathy: Districts are drawn to favor one party, so whoever’s running on that party’s line in the fall gets the lion share of votes.

To be sure, there are some success stories—House members who ran for statewide office when it wasn’t their “turn” and won—and Ms. Maloney surely has them in mind. Kansas’ Sam Brownback, for example, knocked off Sheila Frahm, a moderate Republican appointed to replace Bob Dole in the Senate in 1996, while John E. Sununu ousted Bob Smith, a two-term Republican senator, in 2002 in New Hampshire.

But those are the exceptions. The fates of those who tried and failed aren’t nearly as inspiring.

Hawaii’s Ed Case, for example, was a 53-year-old congressman in 2006 when he got tired of waiting for his state’s two octogenarian senators, Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, to retire. So he challenged Mr. Akaka in the Democratic primary. But the national and state Democratic parties rallied around the incumbent and Mr. Case was defeated. Now, three years later, he’s moved to a different congressional district and is hoping to win back a spot in the House in 2010.

Rob Andrews of New Jersey tried the same trick, challenging 84-year-old Frank Lautenberg in last year’s Democratic primary. It wasn’t even close. Eighteen years of service in the House didn’t buy Mr. Andrews nearly the statewide popularity that he thought it had. Lucky for him, he was able to engineer a maneuver to gain back his House seat.

Most aren’t even that lucky. The political graveyard is full of House members who risked it all in the wrong year. Does anyone even remember, to name just a few, Jim Shannon from Massachusetts, Oklahoma’s Dave McCurdy, or Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut?

A loss to Ms. Gillibrand next year would almost certainly end Ms. Maloney’s political career. Don’t say no one warned her.

Carolyn Maloney and the Lure of the Senate