Politics & Policy

Gillibrand’s Challengers

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.)
Three underdogs fight to challenge the senator.

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.”

Long, who has already captured the Conservative-party nomination, itself a testament to her soundness, has quite the impressive résumé: Dartmouth graduate, clerk to Clarence Thomas, successful attorney, and mother of two. She has never run for political office before, and describes herself as a “lifelong, consistent Reagan conservative.”

Long has argued that she has another quality that could shift the general in her favor: She is a woman. “Once we get past the June 26th primary, we will be the only race in the country pitting a Democratic woman against a Republican woman,” Long points out. That, she holds, should disarm “War on Women”–style identity politics and let her focus on stark contrasts on policy.

With all this in mind, Long says she will move to the forefront of New York politics: “We are going to make some new Republicans this cycle.”

For his part, Turner argues that only he can beat Gillibrand: “I do not think there is anyone but me who can do this.” He says the fact that he already has pulled off an upset in New York, along with his roots in the business community and his strength in key demographics, uniquely positions him for November.

What do the pollsters think? “[The] gap is huge, but things happen. No one thought Schumer was going to win,” says Mickey Carroll of Quinnipiac. “On paper, Gillibrand looks unbeatable at this point. But we don’t win elections on paper. . . . Anything can happen,” adds Siena’s Steve Greenberg.

Gillibrand’s most obvious advantages may turn into liabilities. First, her name-recognition advantage likely inflates her poll numbers. Second, her evolution from a moderate congresswoman into America’s most liberal senator (according to National Journal) should weaken her support in upstate New York; her NRA rating plummeted from an A to an F with her promotion. Lastly, Obama’s falling support in the Jewish community may trickle down the ticket.

The race, by universal acknowledgment, will be difficult. But an upset could just happen for the right candidate.

 Harry Graver is an editorial intern for National Review

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