The Education of Kirsten Gillibrand

Long Island is, of course, the home of the Baileys–the fictitious family created by Mr. Schumer to personify his focus on the middle class. And while Ms. Gillibrand has followed her mentor’s strategy of aggressively targeting the middle class, she arrived at the Baileys’ doorstep from the other side of the upstate divide.

“Chuck had to kind of reinvent himself–skillfully–as someone who’s happy and comfortable milking cows, and overcome kind of the skepticism of rural New York, and he’s done that in spades,” said Mr. Weiner. “She already knows how to walk the rural, upstate dairy-country walk, but she also is clearly comfortable with the downstate talk.”

Mr. Schumer is satisfied with the complement.

“I think she’s doing a great job,” he explained to The Observer. “It’s the only job where two people have the same job. And when Hillary got there, I’d only been there two years and, you know, we’re both hardworking, aggressive people, but we learned quickly that it was better for us–for New York, and for us–to work together, and we did, and we formed a great team,” he said.

“And Kirsten and I have become a great team, too. And, you know, it’s much better to have a strong partner, and she is.”

For Ms. Gillibrand, part of the challenge is not to be entirely subsumed in Mr. Schumer’s shadow.

“She was very lucky Harry Reid was reelected,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Because I think Schumer would have beaten Durbin for majority leader, and then she really would have been overshadowed.”

As it stands, covering the left flank might help Ms. Gillibrand to find a bit of oxygen within the Schumer airspace.

After mostly avoiding the cable rounds in her first 12 months–Joe Scarborough once needled her about refusing invitations to appear on Morning Joe–she has been something of a fixture in the last couple of weeks, appearing on Inside City Hall and Fox News and MSNBC, where Hardball host Chris Matthews introduced her as “one of the stars of the Senate.”

Whether Ms. Gillibrand’s liberal moment will amount to much is unclear, but burnishing her image as a fighter for the left–combined with the continued support of Mr. Schumer–should help quiet any lingering chatter of a primary challenge in 2012.

“You run against someone if you have a rationale, and she was able to create a rationale for herself. And that talks to her political skills, and it also talks to her ability as a senator,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, one of many rumored opponents who chose not to challenge her in the primary this year. “She was able to navigate the different constituencies downstate, and she brought to the table a real constituency upstate.”

Even before this Senate session, it was difficult to see where a liberal challenger might find an angle. Mr. Stringer was speaking in the hallway of the Hotel Trades Council on the weekend before Election Day, a few minutes after Ms. Gillibrand had been chanting and clapping along to an impromptu chant of “Si! Se! Puede!”

The council’s president, Peter Ward, said the union feels “very good about where she is” on the union’s most important issue, comprehensive immigration reform.

A few days earlier, she had received a raucous ovation at the annual gala of the Empire State Pride Agenda, for her work advocating for gay marriage and against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

And the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence had “enthusiastically” endorsed her back in August.

While Democrats recede, Republicans are still hoping they might find an angle, and a candidate, to challenge her from the right in two years.

“All of the senators running in 2012 will be asked a simple question: ‘What did you do for the economy and how many jobs did you create?'” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican consultant who said the national party would take a more active role in New York in the next cycle.

“Her positions on guns and abortion and gay marriage–O.K., got it, that makes for great copy–but it’s just not what’s driving the electorate of New York. And she’ll be the most prominent New York elected official on the ticket being asked, ‘What have you done for me lately?'” said Ms. Conway.

Of course, she won’t be entirely alone, as she’ll have President Obama one rung above her on the Democratic ticket.

“She’s coming up in the right year,” said Mr. Sabato. “Having said that, I still don’t regard her as one of the stronger incumbents, I don’t care what percentage she got.”

For now, the Cook Political Report lists her seat as safely Democratic.

“I think it was a rougher start than most freshman have,” said Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for Cook. “But I think she’s getting her arms around it and I bet that now that she has won, she’ll be much more comfortable.”

“For any individual who’s thrust into the U.S. Senate, you either grow or you fail,” said Mr. Zimmerman. “What I think really distinguished her was her ability to champion issues and the attention she got from that. It has really defined her as a real fighter for New York, and that’s critical.”

rpillifant@observer.com

The Education of Kirsten Gillibrand