ALBANY — Republicans believe Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is vulnerable as an unelected senator who was appointed by an unpopular governor and has been unable to significantly raise her approval ratings.
But with the November election seven months away, it’s still unclear who will take her on.
Big-name Republicans have opted out of a run, three relative unknowns are in and the door is open to new challengers. New York Republicans say they are poised to ride national voter discontent with incumbents to victory. Some analysts counter that the party’s inability so far to come up with a high-profile candidate shows a lack of depth in a party long out of power in the state.
“You’ve got a not-quite-dead-but-comatose Republican party,” said Baruch College politics professor Doug Muzzio. “You don’t have a starting lineup and you don’t have much of a bench, to use a baseball metaphor.”
Former Long Island lawmaker Bruce Blakeman and former Westchester County congressman Joe DioGuardi have announced they are seeking the Republican nomination in the Sept. 14 primary election. Economist
David Malpass, who advised former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani during his 2008 presidential campaign and worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, said he expects to announce his candidacy within weeks. State Republican Chairman Ed Cox said the party is open to other candidates and specifically mentioned two county executives: Scott Vanderhoef in Rockland and Edward Diana in Orange.
Cox scoffed at the notion that it was getting late for a candidate to gear up for a statewide campaign that could cost more than $20 million. He cited Sen. Scott Brown’s upset win in Massachusetts this year and the party’s capture of Nassau County’s executive job last year — two races in which Democrats were heavily favored early.
“We have some very good political talent out there honing their messages,” Cox said.
It’s not unusual for political parties to have a hard time attracting big names to challenge popular incumbents. For instance, a prominent Republican has yet to challenge Sen. Charles Schumer, who routed his last opponent and keeps a fat campaign account. But Gillibrand, appointed by Gov. David Paterson last year to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton’s term, has had low approval ratings — 27 percent in a Marist College poll released last week.
The New York GOP’s talent pool is limited by a dearth of potential candidates in high-profile jobs that are stepping stones to the Senate and governor’s mansion. Republicans hold just two of 29 seats in the U.S. House, while the state attorney general and comptroller are both Democrats.
Two New York Republicans often featured on Sunday morning talk shows — Giuliani and Rep. Peter King of Long Island — took a pass on Gillibrand’s seat.
One possible brand-name GOP challenger is former Gov. George Pataki. But Cox said Pataki is “fairly certain” he will not run and has made it clear the party should look for other candidates. A spokesman for Pataki did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
While the current Republican candidates have relevant government experience, none are well known. Malpass is an investment consultant who served presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Blakeman might be best known beyond Long Island for his unsuccessful run for state comptroller in 1998. DioGuardi has been out of Congress since 1988. His fame in 2010 is eclipsed by that of his daughter, “American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi.
The Marist poll released last week shows Gillibrand beating each by a two-to-one margin.
Gillibrand has shown herself to be an aggressive campaigner, most recently during a primary threat from former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr., the last in a series of Democrats who decided against taking her on. She also raised $7.1 million last year, a respectable amount for new senator. Gillibrand spokesman Matt Canter said the senator is “a tough campaigner and an extremely effective senator that will take a back seat to no one when it comes to fighting for New York.”
Republicans are banking on the voter discontent that likely played a role in Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi’s defeat last year by a little-known legislator and the weaker-than-expected re-election showing by New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Cox called this “a huge wave year” in which both the Gillibrand and the Schumer seat are winnable. As voters worry about the recession and federal debt, Republicans are running as a fiscal reformers.
“Washington is entrenched in its expansion mode,” Malpass said last week. “I think there needs to be an upheaval in Washington.”
Cox said he was not concerned about fundraising challenges for Senate candidates, even those who have yet to emerge. He said national money can flow late to a good candidate, especially if there’s a chance for Republicans to pick up a Senate seat in New York.
Others are less sure, noting the challenges of raising enough money for a candidate to penetrate not only the massive New York City market, but areas Upstate as well.
“If it was Oprah Winfrey, she could join the week before the election,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and vice president at New Paltz state university, “but for ordinary mortals, the window is closing.”