Gillibrand’s Challengers
Three underdogs fight to challenge the senator.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.)


America loves its underdogs. And New York Republicans have to choose among three of them — attorney Wendy Long, congressman Bob Turner, and comptroller George Maragos, who are all vying for the Republican nomination and the long-shot chance to oust an incumbent Democrat, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Recent polls have shown the senator’s lead over her three potential opponents to range between 33 and 42 points. This makes sense. In New York, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans two to one, and no Republican has won statewide office since George Pataki was elected to his third term as governor in 2002.To boot, Gillibrand already has over $9 million in the coffers.

But New York does have a history of interesting statewide upsets — Chuck Schumer over Al D’Amato, James L. Buckley winning as a Conservative-party nominee, George Pataki over Mario Cuomo. Also, national conservative organizations are investing in the race: the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and Citizens United, to name a few. Their dollars — mostly modest donations, though Citizens United gave the legal maximum of $10,000 — speak louder than words.

The primary race is seen as a contest between Turner and Long, with Maragos trailing a distant third. While both recognize the tremendous challenge posed by Gillibrand, both also claim to know how to pull off a win.

Bob Turner first gained national attention with his surprising capture of Anthony Weiner’s vacated congressional seat in 2011. Turner, who spent over 40 years in the television industry, does not brand himself as a politician. Instead, the 71-year-old lifetime New Yorker sees himself as someone “who got off his couch and said, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.’”

Turner has been able to attract supporters big and small, from Rudy Giuliani (“Bob Turner is the definition of a citizen-legislator”) to local political leaders such as John Watch, president of the Northeast Queens Republican Club (“He is genuine, not just someone who is stopping by to placate us”).

Turner spokesman Jessica Proud echoes this appeal, along with the congressman’s conservative bona fides: “Turner is the only one with the record. Long and Maragos have never had to be on the frontlines. Voters are going to want some assurances that what you see is what you get.”

But others — notably Grover Norquist, a Long supporter — hold that Turner’s hesitancy to take tax hikes off the table as part of any debt deal means he can’t claim to be the conservative in the race. Asked about this, Turner chuckles. “Am I chopped liver? Everyone knows at this point where I am. . . . My policies have been pretty clear.” Turner has voted for the Ryan budget in the House.

Norquist’s involvement underscores a larger theme of the race: Long is more popular among conservative organizations nationally. Steve Forbes, John Bolton, Al Cardenas (the American Conservative Union’s chairman), and David Bossie (president of Citizens United) — to name a few — are also rallying to Long’s candidacy.

Bossie calls Long “wicked smart” and argues she could be quite dangerous to Gillibrand, particularly in debates. “She is not just a candidate. . . . She’s a special candidate,” says Cardenas. Forbes says that she represents a unique opportunity for conservatives who are considering donating time and resources: “As this [race] progresses, as people realize there could be a tectonic shift, it is worth it.” Norquist adds that although Americans for Tax Reform doesn’t frequently endorse, Long was “so strong” on taxes that she “kind of required it.”