Archive for the 'NY-Sen' Category

Senate ratings changes: Dems catch a break in California, give it right back in West Virginia

6 rating changes at the Senate level - and all but one favors the GOP. Democrats have caught a major break as Barbara Boxer has created some breathing room in California, but that doesn’t mean they should feel much comfort since West Virginia has gone the opposite way, unexpectedly entering toss-up status.

Keep in mind that Governor Joe Manchin voluntarily scheduled this special election this November when it was supposed to be held in 2012; and he did this knowing just how rough the political environment would be for his party. He thought his popularity would get him through, but enough West Virginia voters seem to prioritize turning Congress Republican that all bets are now off in a state that has turned sharply against Democrats over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Democratic hopes of picking-up a GOP-held Senate seat continue to fade, with Missouri, Ohio and North Carolina all shifting one column towards Republicans.

And as if the landscape wasn’t bad enough for Democrats, I was tempted to downgrade their chances in several more races (Wisconsin, Connecticut, New Hampshire) rather than upgrading them anywhere.

Safe GOP Likely GOP Lean GOP Toss-up Lean Dem Likely Dem Safe Dem
Dem-held ND AR IN

GOP-held AL

This gets us to the following breakdown:

  • Safe Democratic: 45 (-1)
  • Safe/Likely Democratic: 47 (-1)
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Democratic: 50
  • Toss-ups: 6 (-1)
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Republican: 44 (+1)
  • Safe/Likely Republican: 39 (+2)
  • Safe Republican: 34

California, toss-up to lean Democratic: This is one of the only statewide races in the country that has been trending towards Democrats over the past few weeks - and what a relief for Democrats. Sure, the whack-the-mole game that the Senate landscape has become (hat-tip to Swing State Project for suggesting that metaphor) means that Barbara Boxer’s improving fortunes don’t cement her party’s majority since the state has been replaced by West Virginia as the site of a potential upset, but Democrats will get any positive development they can get - and there is no doubt Boxer has been gaining: Rasmussen and SUSA have both shown her bouncing back from a deficit to take a substantial lead, while PPP, CNN/Time, the Field Poll and the Los Angeles Times have her up between 6% and 9%. CNN/Time even has her leading by 19% among registered voters!

Add to that the fact that the NRSC has canceled the time it had reserved on California airwaves in the final week before the election, and Carly Fiorina sure isn’t feeling the momentum. (On a more positive note for the GOP, that’s more airtime for Meg Whitman to saturate.) The race remains competitive, however; Boxer has been outspending Fiorina on the airwaves, so we’ll have to see what happens once (if?) the Republican manages to hit back. Also, the turnout gap seems less dramatic in California than elsewhere but any improvement in the GOP’s fortunes could be fatal to the 3-term incumbent.

Missouri, toss-up to lean Republican: I should have put this race in the lean Republican column weeks ago, but Robin Carnahan has looked like a strong enough candidate all year that I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt for a while longer. After all, Roy Blunt seems in many ways to be the type of candidate voters are looking to oust this year - longtime incumbent, party leadership, bailout architect, not to mention the father of an unpopular former Governor - but his party affiliation is enough to give him a narrow but consistent lead. Carnahan remains within striking distance, but she is acting too defensively for now.

New York, safe Democratic to likely Democratic: Joe DioGuardi might be a former representative, but his entry wasn’t a recruitment coup for Republicans who were long hoping for Rudy Giuliani. Still, New York’s suburbs look so intent on punishing Democrats that statewide upsets can no longer be ruled out. Polls have shown conflicting results in this race; Marist and Siena have recently come out with big Gillibrand leads, Rasmussen has shown her advantage cut in half to a 10% lead; and Quinnipiac and SUSA claim she is only leading up 6% and 1%, respectively. Call it likely Democratic for now, but the race could still shift towards the GOP.

North Carolina, lean Republican to likely Republican: In 2008, Richard Burr would probably have been a goner. Few voters seem to feel affection for him and his poll numbers have long been remarkably low. But Democrats are having trouble enough winning even their safest seats of the year to have much hope of ousting an incumbent in a state that, even in the friendliest of years, is no better than swing. And if that’s not enough, the DSCC sent clear and loud signals it puts no trust in Elaine Marshall from the day she announced her candidacy. That attitude was unexplainable since Marshall was polling competitively and since she always looked like the party nominee (sure, don’t give her support but at least don’t make it clear you think she’ll lose) and it undermined her bid: Why would the press and party donors take Marshall seriously if her national party isn’t? Any chance Democrats had of taking advantage of Burr’s massive vulnerability was destroyed with the DSCC’s behavior.

Ohio, lean Republican to likely Republican: One of Democrats’ top pick-up opportunities just a year ago, Ohio’s Senate race long resisted the GOP trend we were seeing in other races; at a time Blanche Lincoln, Robin Carnahan and Harry Reid were already dipping, Lee Fisher remained on top of Rob Portman. But Ohio has turned hard against Democrats - and the party is bound to feel the consequences in an open seat race: Democrats were hoping to use Portman’s close association to George W. Bush to their advantage, but Portman looks and acts too much like a generic Republican for him not to benefit from the Midwest’s shift to the GOP. This contest is way over-polled; many surveys have been released over the past two weeks with Portman up double-digits.

West Virginia, likely Democratic to toss-up: In a week full of bad news for Democrats, the worst is undoubtedly West Virginia’s sudden entry in the ranks of competitive Senate races. Remember that the state party chose to hold this election this year rather than in 2012, under the belief that Governor Joe Manchin is popular now and would stand a good chance at being elected. With West Virginia voters clearly turned against Democrats, that is now looking like a disastrous calculation. It’s not just that PPP and Rasmussen suddenly released polls showing wealthy Republican nominee Joe Raese narrowly ahead leading, but there’s also clear indication that the party’s internal information points to a close race: The NRSC just poured in $1,2 million in a 2-week ad campaign, something they would not have done if they weren’t confident this is a winnable race.

Movement in Dem primaries: Harold Ford out, Bill Halter in

While it was initially difficult to take the possibility Harold Ford Jr. might run for Senate in New York seriously, the former Tennessee congressman had come to look determined to pursue the race. That makes his announcement tonight that he will not challenge Senator Kirsten Gillibrand somewhat of a surprise.

For a politician to make an unabashed defense of Wall Street his most recognizable campaign issue does not appear to be the best idea after all - if you even believe Ford was serious about running, which I remain doubtful about. Given that he has gotten The New York Times to cover his exit as a sacrifice for the good of the party, it would not surprise me if there is more at play here.

This is the third time over the past twelve months that a Democrat seemingly on the brink of running in New York’s Senate primary pulled back at the last minute. First was Rep. Steve Israel; next was Rep. Carolyn Maloney; and now Ford, who has chosen to make his decision known to the breathless world in an op-ed to be published in The New York Times. Of course, the stakes changed quite a bit: While the left was encouraging Maloney and Israel to get in, Gillibrand became progressives’ champion when she was compared to the conservative Ford.

It now seems safe to say that the senator’s only primary opponent will be labor activist Jonathan Tasini, who drew 17% in his challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2006. While Tasini might very well receive more in September, Gillibrand is overwhelmingly favored to prevail. Now, she would also have been the front-runner had Ford jumped in, but that match-up would have set off a media frenzy that would have kept Democrats busy right up to the September primary, potentially opening the door for Republicans to contest the seat. Indeed, Marc Ambinder reported last month that former Governor George Pataki was signaling potential interest in the race, but only if he saw Ford was in a position to substantially harm the incumbent before the general election.

Let us not forget that Ford had refused to rule out an independent bid, a possibility that is now apparently also out the door. That is one less nightmarish scenario for the DSCC to worry about.

As such, Ford’s exit is a rare blow to Republican efforts to expand the Senate map, as it makes it all the harder to see what could go wrong with Gillibrand’s image for her to lose to the GOP’s sole candidate Bruce Blakeman or for the NRSC to convince Pataki to run. This leaves Wisconsin and Washington as the two Dem-held Senate seats that are currently not competitive but might be depending on recruitment.

If Gillibrand dodged yet another primary bullet today, Blanche Lincoln landed an opponent: Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, whom I first wrote about eleven months ago, announced today he will challenge her in May’s Democratic primary.

My one-sentence take on this development: Given how low Lincoln’s re-election prospects have sank, Democrats have nothing to lose but trying out their luck with another candidate.

When a very well-known incumbent trails even low-profile challengers by double-digits, an open seat might very well be all that is left for a party to save itself - a consideration that’s all the more true given the electorate hostility towards incumbents and towards the federal government. At the very least, for Halter to win the nomination could free the DSCC from its commitment to spending millions in Arkansas: Even if Labor Day polls were to show Boozman with an overwhelming lead, national Democrats might still not be able to deny Lincoln money that could go to other states, whereas they presumably would be less

Naturally, the obstacles to Halter’s bid are stark. If he were to win the general election, he would start as the clear underdog given Boozman’s strength, Arkansas’s red hue and the cycle’s anti-Democratic winds; all these reasons are also dooming Lincoln, but at least she has money to try to surmount them, the name recognition to get voters to pay attention to her and more electoral experience.

Before he can even think of the general election, Halter has to get out of the primary - and here again he faces a very steep climb. Lincoln might have grown into Democrats’ main nemesis for much of 2009 - she not only was one of the public option’s biggest opponents but was also the first (and I believe to this day only) Democrat to announce opposition to EFCA and pushed a huge tax break on the estate tax - but state Democrats are to the right of the national party’s and Arkansas’s incumbent Senators fairly rarely lose primary fights, especially when they have already won before rather than been elected. A key to the Halter-Lincoln match-up will be African-Americans: To have a chance at defeating the incumbent, Halter will need to capitalize on black voters’ potential frustrations with Lincoln and he will need enough organizational muscle to get supporters out of the polls.

One question I have: Given that he was publicly mulling a challenge to Lincoln as early as last spring, why did he wait until 10 weeks before Election Day to make his launch his campaign? He might already be a statewide official, but he is not high-profile enough to have the luxury to wait like Andrew Cuomo, especially considering Lincoln is a very well-funded incumbent who has millions at her disposal to pour in attacks against Halter. The Lieutenant Governor might get a lot of help from the netroots - he had raised $500,000 within hours of his candidacy - but will that compensate Lincoln’s cash-on-hand and her deep ties to the Democratic establishment? (The White House wasted no time before confirming it would support Lincoln.)

[Update: Well, here's one answer as to how Halter can put together a full campaign in such a short period of time: Turns out killing EFCA doesn't endear one to labor groups. The AFL-CIO is already endorsing Halter and a coalition of unions has already committed to spending $3 million to ousting Lincoln.]

There has been a lot of talk today about the effects Halter’s bid might have on Lincoln’s positioning in the Senate, but I doubt this is a meaningful story at this point. Had he announce a year ago, Lincoln might have acted differently at various points of 2009, but the next ten weeks should hardly be the occasion for Halter to pressure the incumbent to move leftward. Yes, the Senate might be called to vote on the health-care vote, but Harry Reid is unlikely to need Lincoln’s vote to pass a reconciliation sidecar: In the quest for 50 votes rather than 60, the names of the senators under the spotlight are Russ Feingold, Kent Conrad and Jim Webb rather than Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln.

NY Dems plagued by scandals, candidates with baggage and special election losses

In few states did Republicans see their fortunes collapse as much as in New York in 2006 and in 2008. They lost the Governor’s Mansion, 6 House seats and the state Senate. But since 2009 started, Democrats have looked determined to give up their gains, never more so than during the summer’s ridiculous month-long saga that saw two Democrats throw the chamber into turmoil by shamelessly selling themselves to the highest bidder. The story got all the more depressing when we learned that the party had not only agreed to buy Pedro Espada’s vote by making him Majority Leader but also by putting his son on the state payroll for a job he never showed up for.

The past few months has continued to bring an avalanche of stories that raise serious questions as to why New York politics is so messed up. Part of the answer is that the state press has more resources to devote to local politics but that does not account for state Democrats’ remarkable ability to shoot themselves on the foot.

The state Senate’s dysfunctions

That said, Albany did manage to rid itself of one particularly egregious offender this week: state Senator Hirram Monserrate. One of the two Democrats who crossed over to Republicans in June, and the one who then most transparently put himself in the middle waiting for both parties to beg him back, Monserrate was convicted in October for assaulting his girlfriend, an assault that was partly captured on camera. Since he was only convicted on misdemeanor charges, Monserrate was not stripped of his position but after five long months of reports and deliberations, the state Senate’s Democratic majority decided to press forward with expelling Monserrate from the chamber.

On Tuesday, the full Senate voted to expel Monserrate on a 53-8 vote. This means that the chamber now has 31 Democrats and 30 Republicans, which means the former cannot pass legislation on a party-line vote (32 votes is needed) until Monserrate’s seat is filled in a March 16th special election.

Among those voting no were the three so-called amigos who (along with Monserrate) threatened to jolt to the GOP in late 2008 (Espada, Ruben Diaz and Carl Kruger). Diaz reacted with characteristically over-the-top fashion, though the prize for the week’s most disgraceful behavior goes to state Senator Kevin Parker, who reportedly charged at fellow Democrat Diane Sevino during an internal caucus meeting. And get this: Parker is also facing felony charges for assaulting a New York Post photographer back in May 2009! If convicted, he would automatically be expelled from the Senate, which might explain why he felt so strongly about how the Senate should treat Monserrate.

The New York state Senate’s dysfunctions are the underplayed story of the year. Besides all those I just mentioned, 2009 ended with the chamber’s longtime leader convicted on corruption charges: Republican Joe Bruno, who retired in 2008, was found guilty of having taken payments adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for political favors and could spend the rest of his life in jail if his appeal is unsuccessful.

Is trouble brewing for Democrats?

While Bruno’s behavior is by far the most important of the recent events, it’s hard to deny that it is Democrats who have been the object of most of the state scandals: Eliot Spitzer, of course, but also Alan Hevesi, Espada and Monserrate. Add to that David Paterson’s jaw-droppingly low approval rating (not to mention the unsubstantiated but nonetheless picked-up-by-the-press rumors that The New York Times is about to reveal a scandal about the governor), and New York has become a landmine for Democrats.

This became apparent in November, when Republicans followed up four years of dismal results by pulling off two entirely unexpected upsets in the NYC suburbs. In Westchester, county executive Andrew Spano was defeated by Rob Astorino; in Nassau County, the GOP captured the county legislature and ousted county executive Thomas Suozzi, who was just 9 months before mentioned as a potential successor to Hillary Clinton. And if that was not enough of a warning sign to Democrats that state voters have turning against them, at least insofar as local government is concerned, we got two more proof this past Tuesday when Republicans picked-up two Assembly seats in special elections.

Once again, both Democratic losses came in the NYC suburbs, suggesting that these Republican-turned-Democratic areas might be drifting back to the conservative column. The first district is in Long Island, the second in Westchester, which means Democrats have now suffered two big defeats in four months in that key county. (More at Ballot Box.) This could give the GOP a strong shot at recapturing a majority in the state Senate come November. In particular, Westchester’s Andrea Stewart-Cousins could be in danger if voters in November want to send the same message as they did in November and then again this week, but Democrats hold a number of vulnerable seats they only recently picked-up in the suburbs.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is a rare Democrat who seems unaffected by the series of scandals that have put the state party in such a tough spot. If he is at the top of the ticket, the fall could have a very different configuration for his party, which could not only affect their majority in the state Senate and races even further down the ballot but also help the state’s 4-6 vulnerable Democratic congressmen.

Harold Ford’s baggage, continued

But nothing exemplifies Democrats’ ability to shoot themselves in the foot in New York as much as the mess Harold Ford’s campaign has been since the day he launch his media blitz with that NYT interview. After we marveled at the fact that the former Tennessee congressman had registered to vote in New York just two months prior and at his determination to present himself as the candidate of Manhattan’s financial elite, we started wondering how far Ford expected to get among voters who vote in New York’s Democratic primary by bashing the health-care bill and criticizing Barack Obama.

The past few days brought new questions still. First, why does Ford think this is the moment to travel to Bermuda to give a speech at a luxury hotel, a move that makes John Kerry’s campaign from the summer of 2004 look good by comparison? More importantly, Ford appears to never have filed a state tax return in New York, despite serving as vice chairman of Merrill Lynch since 2007. While Ford said that he worked out of Merrill Lynch’s Nashville offices, since launching his campaign he repeatedly justified his interest in challenging Gillibrand by claiming he has essentially moved to New York for years, and he did acquire a residence in the city; but the draw of Tennessee’s lack of an income tax might explain why his employment at Merrill Lynch was presented as a long-distance arrangement. That won’t be an easy case to make on the campaign trail, as Gawker’s John Cook summarized well:

If Ford did enough business in New York to keep an office there, it’s reasonable to presume that he earned a good deal of money in New York. Now, we’re sure that there are all sorts of accountants’ arguments and narrow dodges at Ford’s disposal to claim that he didn’t owe New York income tax until he moved here last year: He could have been paid out of Merrill Lynch’s Nashville office, for instance, and he could have received the majority of his income in a bonus that he could claim he earned in Tennessee, not New York. But while those sorts of arguments may be useful to someone trying to get as close as possible to living in New York without suffering the tax consequences of doing so, they’re not as effective when you’re loudly thinking about running for Senate in New York by claiming you’ve lived there for three years and pay taxes there.

Another issue Ford will sooner or later have to confront: did he receive a bonus from Merrill Lynch. In a context in which banking bonuses have become the most recognizable and unpopular symbol of the industry’s deranged behavior, Kirsten Gillibrand has seized on this question, which is now starting to feature prominently in press interviews. This morning on Meet the Press, for instance, Ford was asked “you won’t say how big your bonus was with Merrill?” and he decided to launch into a defense of the banking industry in response. “The system ought to be reformed, but putting a tax on banks at a time in which the recovery is as timid and as fragile as it is,” he explained.

Note that there is now a large faction of New York’s Democratic Party that has chosen to vocally defend the banking industry from any sort of criticism. But it is one thing for Rep. Mike McMahon to forget that some of the final nails in Chris Dodd’s coffin were accusations that he opened the door to the AIG bonuses, it is quite another for someone who might have personally benefited from such a similar bonus to expect that answer to carry him all the through the fall.

To have shot at Senate, NRSC needs recruitment coups in two out of NY, WI and WA

Evan Bayh has dodged his second bullet in two weeks as Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita announced he would run for the House seat from which Rep. Steve Buyer retired on Friday rather than challenge the longtime senator.

Is this a case of fortuitous timing for Democrats? Rokita had nothing to lose by seeking federal office since his term is not up until 2012; his decision to run for the House suggests he really was interested in a congressional position, so might Bayh have landed a top-tier challenger by now had Buyer not retired? While Republicans are left wondering what might have been, we are back to the situation we were in on Thursday: Unless Governor Mitch Daniels bucks expectations, the GOP will have to do with state Senator Marlin Stutzman and former Rep. John Hostettler, neither of whom are well-positioned to take full advantage of the environment.

(Rokita’s move also guarantees a competitive GOP primary in IN-4, since Buyer’s protege state Senator Brandt Hershman has also jumped in. Whoever prevails in this their primary is likely to win the general election; the only Democrat who is being mentioned as a potential candidate is Purdue University biology professor David Sanders.)

While Bayh can no longer be considered a shoo-in for his re-election race, Indiana is back on the safer side of the equation - which is more than we can of other Democratic seats. A reminder of what the landscape looks like: With ND, DE, AR, NV, CO, PA and IL already top-tier targets, Republicans need to put three more Senate seats in play to have a shot at controlling the Senate if they pull off a sweep. With an Inouye retirement looking unlikely in HI, the NRSC failing in its IN recruitment effort and Blumenthal as of now marching towards a CT coronation (which is leading to talk that Rob Simmons might drop out), the remaining targets are CA, NY, WI and WA.

With Tom Campbell and to a lesser extent Carly Fiorina, the NRSC already has the candidates they need in California. That means they probably need to pull off recruitment coups in two out of the three latter states.

WA: GOP poll suggests Patty Murray could be vulnerable

We should never do much with partisan polls taken with obvious political intents but GOP firm Moore Research found Dino Rossi, the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in both 2004 and 2008, with a 45% to 43% lead over Senator Patty Murray. Rossi is arguably as good as it gets for Washington Republicans; after coming as close as you can get to becoming governor in 2004 (he led before a recount reversed his edge), he was one of the few Republicans mounting a competitive statewide challenge in 2008 anywhere in the county. As such, Murray could do worse than trail Rossi by 2% in a Republican poll.

On the other hand, Murray was considered safe until Massachusetts altered the GOP’s ambitions so these numbers cannot but give a lot of additional heartburn to Democrats - especially as they moved Rossi to open a slight door to a run. While he said he has “no plans to run for any office at this point,” he added “I never say never.” The GOP is presumably working to convince Rep. Dave Reichert, who must not be relishing the prospect of being one of the only House Republicans facing a credible challenge.

GOP prospects against Gillibrand depend on Pataki (and Ford)

Believe it or not, even Chuck Schumer’s re-election race is now generating news! While the Democratic Senator has long looked untouchable, a new Marist poll finds an undeniable downward trend in his approval rating: for the first time since April 2001, it has dipped under 50%. This development comes as CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow, last seen mulling a Senate run against Chris Dodd last year, is now setting his sights on Schumer. That prospect is silly and Marist confirms the dip in Schumer’s rating doesn’t mean he has much to worry about: He crushes Kudlow 67% to 25%. Yet, the mere fact that I am moved to discuss Schumer on this blog is a stunning development.

New York’s other Senate seat remains the race to watch, and Marist finds that GOP prospects probably depend on George Pataki’s decision. While Kirsten Gillibrand trails the former governor 49% to 43%, her numbers against sole Republican candidate Bruce Blakeman bear no trace of vulnerability: she crushes him 52% to 30% - a margin that is all the more decisive considering the number of Democratic senators who are proving unable to muster leads against low-profile challengers, let alone cross the 50% threshold.

The GOP’s other hope of contesting this seat, of course, is for Harold Ford to bruise Gillibrand, outright win the primary or run as an independent. Marist found Ford routed by Pataki (52% to 35%) and struggling to muster a lead over Blakeman (39% to 35%); a match-up with Ford running as an independent was not tested. Marist did poll the primary, finding Gillibrand up 44-27 with Tasini at 4%. Ford is competitive thanks to weak support for Gillibrand in NYC, but is this not the region in which he should find the coldest reception for his conservative views? Another problematic number for Ford is that his unfavorability rating is nearly identical to Gillibrand’s despite his lower name recognition.

Except for Indiana, filing deadlines are a long time away

Unfortunately for Democrats, New York’s filing deadline is in July so Pataki has time to see whether Ford will gain any traction before making up his mind. The same is true in other states since Washington and Wisconsin Republicans have until June to make up their mind. Only in Indiana is the NRSC running out of time.

Of course, it is difficult to mount a competitive statewide campaign in just a few months, but we are talking here about well-known politicians like Pataki and Tommy Thompson who do not have to introduce themselves to voters, already have a fundraising structure and would probably easily secure their party’s nod; the same is true to a lesser degree of Rossi and perhaps even of Reichert, who is already raising money at a fast paste to prepare for his re-election race.

As Ford leaves door open to indie bid, Gillibrand lands first GOP opponent

Over the past two weeks, I’ve failed to understand how any of what Harold Ford has been doing and saying makes sense in the context of his contemplating a Senate run in New York rather than Tennessee; this has led many other observers to joke Ford has become an Onion staffer parodying politics. (Update: Speaking of a self-parody, Ford granted The Daily News an interview under the condition that he wouldn’t be asked about issues!) But his actions are easier to explain if we posit that he’s not trying to run as a Democrat but has always had the general election in mind: There is now speculation that he’s preparing to run as an independent - perhaps even seek the endorsement of the Independent Party, which has a guaranteed ballot line in NY elections.

When asked whether he might mount an independent bid, Ford left the door open - not something that a politician does when he is committed to running in a primary, since a lack of commitment to the party can easily be hurt against him down-the-line.

The major obstacle to this is that Ford would then be unlikely to receive support from the African-American establishment (I had already mentioned last week that Al Sharpton has been reportedly “open” to Ford’s candidacy, and we got confirmation of that this week) and from African-American voters, the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency; given the state’s demographics, it’s hard to see how Ford build a winning coalition without receiving substantial black support so this is a consideration that will weigh on his mind.

Yet, Ford’s primary chances are low. Beyond his positions’ awful fit with the electorate he’s after and the terrible start he gave his campaign, two polls released over the past 5 days found him massively trailing: Siena has Gillibrand leading 41% to 19%, while Marist has her up 43% to 24%. Sure, Gillibrand is under 50% in both, but consider that she has not held any sort of lead against other Democrats she’s been tested against: Maloney and McCarthy used to tie her in polls released as recently as this summer. Add to that the fact that Gillibrand’s name recognition isn’t high enough for her to enjoy an incumbency advantage in polls such as those, and Ford’s early standing isn’t impressive; and consider that Gillibrand’s campaign has much more material with which to disqualify Ford in the eyes of Democrats than they would have had they faced Maloney or Steve Israel.

An independent bid could make sense given not only Ford’s conservative politics but also the positions he’s been embracing ever since he started his media blitz. Sure, he pulled American politics’s biggest flip-flop on gay marriage, but he is placing himself well outside of the Democratic mainstream on most other issues, making opposition to the health-care bill and Wall Street-friendly policies the central positions of his campaign. (He even took the time to make positive comments about George W. Bush last week!) Furthermore, Gillibrand can undoubtedly vulnerable in a general election; while Ford has none of what it takes to take advantage of her primary weaknesses (he cannot attack her for her malleability, her gun control positions, her former Blue Dog-status), he could hope to appeal to those voters who typically vote Democratic but who are looking to not do so this year. In other words, bypassing the primary could allow him to court conservative Democrats and voters who want to oppose Democrats.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that Ford faces an uphill climb whether he runs as a Democrat or as an independent. His explicit positioning as the candidate of Manhattan’s financial elite and his jaw-droppingly tone-deaf and classist interview to the New York Times will be hard sells in a general election just as in a primary. Yet, just as a Ford would be a senator much in the mold of the Lieberman of the past 2 years, his best chance to win this Senate seat might very well be to follow the template of Lieberman’s 2006 Senate campaign - combine an independent bid with substantial Republican support.

For this to be a viable path to victory, however, Ford would have to position himself as Gillibrand’s main general election opponent. In other words, this requires the GOP failing to field a credible opponent, which would allow someone else to become the de facto Republican candidate. This is what happened in Connecticut’s 2006 race, in which the GOP nominee Alan Schlesinger was barely a factor and Lieberman was thus able to reach 70% among Republican voters!

This heightens the stakes of the GOP’s recruitment efforts: Will they be able to recruit a decent candidate against the New York senator? Rudy Giuliani ruled out a run mid-December, and in January a number of Republicans the NRSC was courting followed suit: Rep. Peter King, former Rep. Susan Molinari and Larchmont Mayor Liz Feld. These were particularly disappointing decisions to Republicans, since any of them would have been sure mount credible runs - and none would have become a non-factor had Ford mounted an independent bid. Thus, their decisions does open the door to his using Lieberman’s playbook and making a play to become the de facto GOP nominee without seeking the Republican nomination.

Yet, Republicans did land their very first candidate this week: attorney Bruce Blakeman, currently a commissioner on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who ran statewide in 1998 when he was crushed in the Comptroller race, announced his candidacy last week. (Blakeman becomes just the second announced challenger to Gillibrand, Democrat Jonathan Tasini being the first.)

While he might not be the GOP’s first choice, Blakeman was accompanied by a number of the state’s Republican leaders, most notably former Senator Alfonse D’Amato and Peter King. D’Amato’s presence was actually quite striking because the former Senator had been present on the front-row of the press conference at which David Paterson appointed Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate seat. That had raised eyebrows both among Republicans, wondering why one of their most prominent politicians appeared to be endorsing a Democrat, and among liberals, who were weary of Gillibrand; but those days are gone, with D’Amato now criticizing Gillibrand as a “party functionary.”

(In announcing his candidacy, Blakeman said, alluding to Ford and Gillibrand: “”One is the congressman from Tennessee. The other is the senator who votes like she’s from Nebraska.”I am failing to understand what the latter sentence means coming from a Republican! Is he saying that Gillibrand is too conservative? that she is too devoted to rural interests? is it a swipe at Ben Nelson?)

It’s easy to see the well-connected Blakeman end up as the GOP nominee; it’s harder to envision him that threatening a candidate. In December, a Siena poll found Gillibrand with a 52% to 22% lead over Blakeman. Sure, the latter has little-to-no name recognition statewide, but it’s not like Gillibrand is that well-known either, and the fact that she does top 50% suggests that New Yorkers aren’t desperate to drop her. In short: Gillibrand would start as clearly favored in a head-to-head against Blakeman, while it would be fascinating to see the dynamics of a 3-way race involving Ford. Would Blakeman be strong enough to avoid Schlesinger’s fate?

There’s of course one Republican who could still mix up the race if he were to jump in: former Governor George Pataki. The Siena and Marist polls confirm he would make this a top-tier race. Siena has him crushing Gillibrand 51% to 38% and also Ford 54% to 32%. Marist is far more optimistic for the senator, who leads Pataki 45% to 42%; Ford does trail 42% to 36%. Few people expect Pataki to run, however: he’s been making quite a few trips to New Hampshire in recent months, and it would be tough to reconcile a Senate race with a presidential run.

Unless any major news breaks in the coming hours, I imagine the rest of the day will be devoted to Massachussetts.

Dissecting Harold Ford’s New York Times interview

[Updated at bottom] On Friday, I highlighted just how conservative Harold Ford was during his 10 years in the House, but I sure was not expecting just how much more grotesque the story would become.

The first episode of this bizarre saga came when Harold Ford matter-of-factly stated that he supported gay marriage on NBC this week-end; despite the fact that this makes him the only politician to have voted for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage to now call for its legalization, Ford presented his position as parallel to those of Democrats like Bill Clinton and Chuck Schumer, the latter of whom was certainly a loud opponent of George W. Bush’s efforts to amend the constitution. He went as far as to call it simply a “change in language;” I’m sure he’d be happy to explain to gay New Yorkers why the ban he twice supported amounted to nothing but a difference in semantics with their call for equality.

I have repeatedly criticized Kirsten Gillibrand’s rapid turnarounds on high-profile issues, including gay marriage, gun rights and immigration reform. Her transition from a Blue Dog Democrat to one of the Senate’s most reliably liberal votes was so abrupt that it is tough to trust her ideological profile and how she’ll vote once she gets past her re-election race. Yet, not only are none of her flips are egregious as Ford’s gay marriage reversal, but her camp at least acknowledged that she had evolved [update: and explained it her by her need to represent a different constituency] rather than try to downplay them as a mere issue of a “change in language.”

The second episode involved Ford deciding that the best way to promote his nascent campaign was to write an op-ed in The New York Post, which is sure to endear him to Democrats. In the piece:

  • He takes issue with those who are distorting his record by calling him “pro-life” when he is “pro-choice — have always been since I entered politics almost 15 years ago.” Hmm, I wonder why people might think of calling him pro-life? Perhaps because he has said things like: “I’m pro-life.” “I was not pro-choice at one time.” Right, let’s move on.
  • “I remain committed to promoting gun safety and handgun control and I look forward to working with Mayor Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Corey Booker,” he writes. Ford voted to repeal Washington D.C.’s restrictions on guns when he was serving in Congress; might he at least acknowledge that he was not always committed to working alongside gun control advocates like Bloomberg?

Yet, Ford was just getting started in The New York Post, where he only offered passing remarks about the need to “defeat terror” and “rebuild the economy.” The main course came in today’s New York Times, which wrote up a full-length article on the basis of an interview with the DLC Chairman. The piece is so full of riches that it forced me to write-up this blog post. Let’s get right to it:

  • Yes, Health-care reform is growing unpopular nationally; yes, it might even be losing support among Democrats. But it is simply unfathomable that a candidate could get any traction in New York’s Democratic primary  by running against the health-care bill from the right! (Even Arkansas Blanche Lincoln became more cooperative once liberals started floating the threat of a challenge by Brian Halter.) Yet, that is exactly what Ford is planning to do: “He blasted her support for the proposed health care overhaul,” notes the NYT. How can he possibly think that making his opposition to the health-care bill one of his top issues could possibly help him?
  • On abortion, Ford reiterated what he had written in the New York Post: “To describe me as pro-life is just wrong. I am personally pro-choice and legislatively pro-choice.” I’ve already addressed how revisionist this is. Same goes with gun control, an issue on which Ford said: “All of Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor Booker’s efforts in the region, I support.” At least, Ford acknowledged that his new views on immigration are different from those he held in 2006, when he supported legislation “to allow local police officers to investigate and arrest illegal immigrants, despite the objections of many advocates and lawmakers” including Michael Bloomberg.
  • A few days ago, a commenter criticized me for praising Hillary Clinton’s listening tour; but however you want to characterize her motivations, Clinton at least pretended to be interested in getting to know the many different constituencies and communities that make up her state. When asked whether he had been all over NYC (forget the state, we’re just talking about the city Ford lives in), the Tennessee congressman’s response was stunning: “Asked whether he had visited all five boroughs, he mentioned taking a helicopter ride across the city with fellow executives.” Seriously?! Could he not have taken the time to at least visit the five boroughs of the city he’s lived in for the past three years before launching his campaign?! There are 9 months left before the primary, and I prefer to not even know about his familiarity with the rest of the state given his inability to get out of Manhattan.
  • His statement about visiting New York via helicopter is stunning not only because it reveals how little he has taken the time to explore the constituents he is suddenly so committed to representing, but also because Ford appears completely oblivious to the fact that he might not want to make his entire life story about how much he belongs in the New York upper-class elite. It says something about his politics that Ford chooses to highlight that he “takes the subway only occasionally in the winter, to avoid the cold when he cannot hail a cab,” that taxis are his almost exclusive mode of transportation, that he “has breakfast most mornings at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.” What I found particularly depressing is the following sentence: “Mr. Ford said he had been emboldened by the response he had received from the public in recent days. Everyone — from the cabdrivers who shuttle him around the city to the executives with whom he rubs elbows on Wall Street — has urged him to run, he said.” How much more oblivious can one be to the fact that one lives in a bubble, with no apparent awareness as to what it reveals that the main interactions with members of lower-classes he can think of involves his being driven around?
  • This is not just a matter of lifestyle: Ford makes no secret of the fact that his main political backers is Manhattan’s financial elite - and of the fact that he wants to promote the policies that would help Wall Street executives. At a time in which voters are the GOP is banking on populist rhetoric and in which voters are clamoring for tougher policies towards banks and the financial sector, here is the entirety of the economic agenda Ford develops in this piece: “a major reduction in the corporate tax rate,” “a payroll tax holiday to encourage hiring,” support for last year’s financial bailout and an opposition to “capping executive compensation on Wall Street.” I don’t see him mention any specific economic policy that might counter this.

Here we have it. Ford makes no effort to even pretend he has visited most of the city he is supposedly attached to (let alone the large state he wants to represent), he does not think it worthwhile to say the slightest thing that might suggest he has kept some connection with New Yorkers who aren’t part of the upper-class, and the only substantive stances he chooses to promote are his opposition to Democrats’ biggest domestic priority, tax breaks for corporations and allowing unlimited compensation on Wall Street.

Caroline Kennedy’s outreach to press turned out to be a catastrophe, and I’m not sure Harold Ford’s will look much better once he is done with his media blitz.


Did Harold Ford lie in the interview? In trying to explain why he donated money to Gillibrand, he said “I was asked by a friend to make a contribution. Kirsten was a Blue Dog member of the House.” When the interviewer asked, “But a donation suggests you approve of the way she’s led, no?” Ford responded:

She had only been a senator for two days, when I made my contribution… One of the things you will find as we talk is that I have a decent-size memory for dates and people. One of the reasons I remember this. It was at the St. Regis Hotel. I had been on “Morning Joe” that morning. And our mutual friend asked if I would attend the fund-raiser. I said, absolutely.

Gillibrand was appointed in January. But Ford’s donation was reported to have been made on June 5th, 6 months later. By then, Ford had had plenty of time to see Gillibrand’s style and positions.

You can follow me on Twitter at @Taniel.

The conservative Democrat: Since we have to take the Harold Ford speculation seriously

Throughout 2009, countless prominent politicians took a hard look at challenging Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. With much of the left apoplectic that a Blue Dog found herself appointed to the Senate and with Gillibrand suffering from mediocre poll numbers, she looked poised to face top-tier opposition. Yet, one-by-one all these New Yorkers ruled out a bid. By my count, at least 7 who would have given Gillibrand a very tough race seriously flirted with the possibility before giving up: Israel, Mahoney, McCarthy, Nadler, Serrano, Stringer and Giuliani. (Jon Cooper also looked close to a bid before giving up.) On Tuesday, Gillibrand dodged an 8th bullet: Bill Thompson, whose name had popped up in statewide discussions after his strong result in November’s mayoral race, announced he wouldn’t run for anything in 2010 so he could prepare for another mayoral bid in 2013.

So we’re done with looking out for new Democratic candidates, right? Gillibrand’s only primary opponent will be Jonathan Tasini, who got 17% in a primary bid against Hillary Clinton in 2006? Not so fast: In a bizarre development, the latest name that has popped up in the state’s Senate discussions is that of Harold Ford Jr., the former congressman who lost a close Senate race in Tennessee in 2006.

To imagine Ford might represent New York as a Democrat is such a grotesque proposition it took me a while to be convinced that I even needed to address the story. Yet, it is increasingly looking like the former congressman is so serious that the biggest figures in the Democratic firmament are getting involved in pushing him out: Harry Reid has reportedly contacted Ford’s new protector Mike Bloomberg to urge him to give up on his latest power play, while Chuck Schumer met with Ford last night to dissuade him from running.

Let’s first state that he registered to vote in New York a month-and-half ago. We first heard about the possibility he might run back in November, which makes this transition from non-resident to explorer-of-a-Senate-bid make Hillary Clinton look like a lifelong New Yorker. After all, the then-First Lady went through a lengthy listening tour across upstate New York before even announcing a bid. But the most important thing to consider about Ford is his ideology.

Ford might have been an appropriate candidate for Tennessee, but if he were to represent New York he would make Joe Lieberman look like a good fit for Connecticut and Rick Santorum for Pennsylvania. Just for starters, there is the fact that he is currently the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s centrist apparatus that even the party’s moderates have distanced themselves from over the past decade. But a quick look at his record reveals just how far to the right Ford is compared to Democrats nationally, let alone relatively to one of the country’s most reliably left-wing Democratic electorates.

The most telling vote: In 2006, he was one of 34 Democrats to vote for the Federal Marriage Amendment, the constitutional ban on same-sex unions; at least 2 of the 27 Republicans who voted “no” were from New York. (He also trumpeted his support for a Tennessee ban.) But there’s more:

  • 2000: Ford votes to normalize trade relations with China. Democrats oppose bill 138-73.
  • 2001: Ford votes for the Patriot Act. Democrats support bill 129-75.
  • 2002: Ford votes to authorize Iraq War. Democrats oppose bill 126-81.
  • 2003: Ford is one of 63 Democrats to vote for the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.
  • 2005: Ford votes for House Republicans’ tough anti-immigration bill, the Real ID ACT. Only 42 Democrats did so.
  • 2005: Ford was one of 43 Democrats to back legislation intervening in the Terri Schiavo case.
  • 2005: Ford votes for bankruptcy reform, along with 72 other Democrats.
  • 2006: Ford votes to permanently repeal the estate tax, along with only 42 other Democrats.
  • He repeatedly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning (2005, 2003, 2001, 1999). In 2005, the amendment fell just one vote short of the 67 it needed to clear the Senate; needless to say, Democrats can’t afford to give up one of the New York seats.

As we can see, we aren’t talking about a few minor votes but a record of backing the GOP’s top legislative priorities, including bills that were particularly repulsive to much of the Democratic Party: the FMA, the estate tax, bankruptcy reform, the Real ID Act. (One issue on which Ford appears to have a liberal stance is the death penalty, on which he has supported a moratorium. He could also point to his votes against making George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent, against CAFTA and against Medicare Part D, though those votes received very little Democratic support.) What is especially striking is that Ford is the right of his party across-the-board: fiscal issues, social issues, immigration and national security.

This record is all the more reflective of his ideology that he represented a heavily Democratic district, which means most of his positions were at diametrically opposed to his constituents’. It’s one thing for House Democrats to end up with someone who votes like Bobby Bright in a district that gives Democrats more than 70% of the vote rather than less than 40%; it’s obviously far more consequential for such a misfit to happen in the Senate.

Some might say that Ford was positioning himself this far to the right because he intended to seek statewide office. However, the congressman started bucking his party early in his House career (there is no evidence he became more centrist as the 2006 cycle approached) and his profile today is the same as it was three years ago: He became head of the DLC after leaving Congress.

Most importantly, Ford appears to be interested in a Senate run because of a desire to promote economically conservative positions. For one, he appears to be peeved by Gillibrand’s support for health-care reform! At the very least, that’s what transpires from a New York Post article that reports Mike Bloomberg is pushing Ford because “he’s tangled [with Gillibrand] over health care reform in recent weeks.” Furthermore, The New York Times article that has created much of this week’s buzz revealed that Ford’s backers to be a who’s who of New York’s financial elites and “Wall Street executives who are now encouraging him to run.” (Add to that the fact that Bloomberg’s fingerprints are all over , and this is Caroline Kennedy all over again; I guess it’s a more conservative version, but then again we had no idea where Kennedy stood on any issue.) The article also mentions that some of Ford’s backers are alarmed that Gillibrand “abandoned some of her previous positions on issues like gun control and immigration.”

Indeed: Just a year ago Gillibrand was a member of the House Blue Dog Coalition and her voting record (while nowhere like Ford’s) provoked the consternation of many progressives. Even taking into account the fact that she has remade herself into a liberal since joining the Senate, it is rather far-fetched that she might face the prospect of a challenge from the right. And yes, we are talking about the Empire State: it might not be as staunchly blue as Massachussetts and Rhode Island, but the majority of the Democratic electorate lives in liberal New York City.

And yet, we cannot dismiss Ford’s chances - after all, Schumer and Reid are clearly taking his potential candidacy seriously. First, Gillibrand has had trouble imposing herself and her upstate roots still raise questions about how well she’ll play in New York City. Second, Ford should be able to raise as much money as he needs, as he is very well connected not only in national political circles but also to executives in the financial sector that look committed to helping him.

Most importantly, despite his conservative record Ford might benefit from solid support in the black community, a significant force in New York primaries: The New York Times reports that Ford has already met with the Reverend Al Sharpton, who is “did not seek to discourage Mr. Ford from running, and recommended that he begin to reach out to the state’s black leaders and clergy.” Ford is also scheduled to give the keynote speech at next month’s Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators conference. The Times quoted Brooklyn Assemblyman Nick Perry as noting the group would be open to Ford’s candidacy. I know little about Perry, but Sharpton can hardly be said to be ideologically close to the DLC.

So might the primary turn into a battle of strange coalitions - New York’s financial class, the DLC-establishment and African-American leaders on the one hand; the left’s activist groups, Latino groups and the Democratic establishment on the other? That would be quite a turnaround: It was one thing to see progressives give up on challenging Gillibrand, but if Ford runs we will be treated to the stunning spectacle of liberal groups, immigration and gay-rights advocates, probably unions rallying around New York’s junior senator.

Rudy Giuliani heads out of the 2010 cycle

Kirsten Gillibrand must be wondering how she got so lucky.

While her politics would have made it impossible for her to win a Democratic primary for an open Senate seat, she was appointed to the upper chamber after just two years in the House. While her conservative voting record and hardline stance on immigration drew nearly unanimous fire from liberals and from Hispanics groups, her critics gave up one by one - either endorsing the senator in the process or blaming the White House-Chuck Schumer axis for making it impossible to mount a credible statewide run. And while her poll numbers remain very weak, no Republican has emerged willing to take her on.

Last night, we learned that the GOP’s dream candidate Rudy Giuliani will not run for Senate - nor for any other political office - a rare good news for Democrats on the recruitment front that almost removes New York from the list of competitive Senate races. Given the number of seats the party has to defend, not having to worry about spending millions to defend the Empire State has to be a huge relief for the DSCC - not to mention for Gillibrand.

Giuliani had spent much of the year flirting with the possibility and he led Gillibrand by daunting margins. In mid-November, The Daily News prematurely reported that Giuliani was set on running; other press outlets quickly nuanced the story, but the consensus was that the former mayor was leaning towards jumping in. As this happened roughly at the same time that Siena and Marist released surveys showing Giuliani up by double-digits, Democrats were not amused.

All of this said, Giuliani’s exit is not enough to end the GOP’s hopes of picking-up Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. Former Governor George Pataki has yet to rule out making a run, and not having to worry about a primary with Giuliani could encourage him; yet, most signs point towards he’s not running and he looks more interested in running for president in 2012. Republicans could also turn to Larchmont Mayor Liz Feld, Port Authority Commissioner Bruce Blakeman and former state Senator Mike Balboni. Yet, while all three could make Gillibrand sweat, New York remains a blue enough state and Gillibrand a well-financed enough incumbent that the GOP would face an uphill climb without Giuliani and without Pataki. A Siena poll released last week had Gillibrand leading Blakeman 52% to 22% - above the 50% threshold.

Giuliani’s decision not to run for anything in 2010 has as important consequences on the Governor’s race, but we already covered those last month since that part of his decision was already clear then. The most important thing to watch for is how this influences Democrats’ eagerness to dump David Paterson from the ballot; since the incumbent manages to poll competitively against Rick Lazio, the disappearance of the Giuliani threat should ease the pressure he faces to retire and it could mean that part of the state establishment becomes more resistant to Andrew Cuomo running than they would have been otherwise.

Finally, this development perhaps signals that Giuliani no longer intends to seek any elected office. After his short-lived 2000 Senate campaign and the disaster that was his 2008 presidential campaign, the former mayor had a golden opportunity to get back in the game - a favorable environment, a weak incumbent who had never faced most of her constituents, good poll numbers. His decision not to take advantage of it will solidify the conventional wisdom that he never intended to run and was only teasing to keep himself in the game, which shouldn’t endear him to state Republicans.

On the other hand, I am not convinced - as most are reporting - that this is the end of Giuliani’s political career. After all, if the former mayor is committed to running for president in 2012, challenging Gillibrand would have been a major obstacle. Not only would he have to move to Iowa and New Hampshire just after being sworn in to the Senate, but he would have to immediately transition from appealing to New York’s left-leaning electorate to courting the country’s conservative Republican base - an impossible proposition that would have made Mitt Romney’s flip-flops seem like a paradigm of principled behavior. And it’s not like Giuliani could easily wait until 2016, since he would already be 72 by that time.

In short: If the White House is Giuliani’s only end goal (given his brutal style, can we imagine him really wanting to serve in the Senate?), he had little choice but to pass on 2010.

Might Paterson be electable?

We receive many NY polls every month, and until now all have found very repetitive results. Yet, Quinnipiac and Siena just released two surveys that bring some rare novelty. First, David Paterson’s numbers are substantially improving for the first time of the year; second, Kirsten Gillibrand would be highly endangered if Bill Thompson were to challenge her in the Democratic primary.

Paterson’s improvement

He thought he might get a bump from his attempts to resolve during the summer’s crisis in Albany, from his success at appointing a Lieutenant Governor, from early but significant ad buys and from his leadership on the marriage equality bill; yet, Paterson’s remained stuck at abysmal levels all year. Until this week, that is: Quinnipiac’s poll finds his approval rating has jumped at a respectable 40%, with 49% disapproving.

A 40-49 rating might not be anything to write home about, but it is a dramatic improvement from what all pollsters have found throughout the year; Paterson’s approval in last month’s Quinnipiac poll stood at 30%, with 57% disapproving. Furthermore, it makes Paterson look like just any incumbents rather than one who is breaking all records of unpopularity: Many Democratic governors around the country are stagnating around 40%, starting with the likes of Ted Strickland and Chet Culver who were not so long ago expected to coast to a second-term.

Paterson’s numbers have not improved as significantly in Siena’s poll, but the trendline is the same. The governor’s favorability rating stands at 36%, an improvement from 33% in November and 27% in October; his unfavorability rating (53%) is the lowest it has been since February - as is the differential between the two (-17%). Also, the share of voters who say that Paterson’s job performance is “poor” stands at 34%, down from 39% in November and the lowest it has been since March.

Of course, all of Siena’s numbers I have just cited remain absurdly low - and the 40% approval rating Quinnipiac found is certainly not high enough for Paterson to be in a favorable position in his re-election race. So how can we now ask whether he is electable? Because Rudy Giuliani’s exit from the gubernatorial race guarantees that the GOP will not field a top-tier contender, so for Paterson to win a general election has gone from an impossible proposition to an uphill climb: In Siena, Paterson grabs a 42% to 40% lead over Rick Lazio (42% highest level of support he has received since February) while he leads 41% to 37% in Quinnipiac’s survey.

What I do not mean is that Paterson is electable in the Democratic primary: Andrew Cuomo, whose approval rating is ridiculously high, retains a 60-23 lead in Quinnipiac and a 67-23 lead in Siena. Yet, these latest surveys open the door to the possibility that Cuomo not run after all. First, Democrats should be less desperate to knock Paterson off now that they don’t have to worry about Giuliani; second, the change in the Governor’s numbers is primarily driven by an improvement among Democrats (his favorability rating in the Quinnipiac poll is 49-32), which could mean a tougher primary than expected for Cuomo.

Gillibrand’s vulnerability

For all of Gillibrand’s efforts to court progressives and introduce herself to state voters, a large share of voters still has no opinion of her - and those who do remain unenthusiastic. Quinnipiac finds some contrasting evolutions in how voters see Gillibrand: While her favorability rating has gotten considerably worse since October (it now stands at 25-16), her approval rating has improved to a solid 40-21. In Siena, Gillibrand’s favorability rating stands at 31-22.

What is new is that both pollsters decided to match Gillibrand against NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson, whose name has been circulating as a potential primary challenger. And the results are somewhat surprising: In Quinnipiac’s head-to-head match-up, Thompson leads Gillibrand 41% to 28%! She leads in the Siena poll, but it is a four-way race, suggesting that Thompson is harmed by a split of the anti-incumbent vote: The incumbent receives 32%, Thompson 23%, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. gets 7% and labor activist John Tasini is at 3%.

In short, Gillibrand would be highly vulnerable in the Democratic primary… but a growing number of her would-be rivals are choosing to endorse her rather than challenge her. The latest: Suffolk County legislator Jim Cooper, who announced on Monday he would not run. What will Thompson (who has never publicly acknowledged his interest, but has not denied reports he might run either) do?

We are faced with the same paradox in the general election: There is no question that Republicans have a shot at reclaiming this seat, but none of the candidates who might do so have jumped in. Rudy Giuliani leads Gillibrand 50% to 40% in the Quinnipiac poll and 49% to 42% in the Siena poll; Gillibrand inches ahead of Pataki 46% to 43% and crushes low-profile Bruce Blakeman 52% to 22%.

Both pollsters find Thompson running weaker than Gillibrand in the general election - marginally so in Quinnipiac (Giuliani leads 52% to 36%), more significantly in Siena (Giuliani leads 56% to 34%, Pataki leads 49% to 36%, though Thompson leads Blakeman by 17%). Some of this can be explained by Thompson’s lower name recognition, but the discrepancy between the two Democrats’ notoriety is not that significant. However, the bottom-line might be that electability will not be that relevant an argument if Pataki and Giuliani pass on the race, as is looking increasingly likely.

Gillibrand faces second wave of potential challenges

Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment to the Senate was met with such outrage among ambitious state politicians, liberal Democrats and Hispanic groups that it would have been unfathomable that she would be mostly unchallenged as 2009 drew to a close.

A combination of factors (Gillibrand’s move leftward, which quite literally occurred overnight and gradually helped her win over some progressive critics, for instance Jerrold Nadler; the White House and Chuck Schumer’s intervention on her behalf; Democratic congressmen’s reluctance to leave safe House seats for a tough statewide race) made her look like a less compelling target, and one by one her would-be challengers dropped out: Reps. Steve Israel, Carolyn Maloney, Carolyn McCarthy, Jose Serrano and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stinger.

Yet, there is now a new wave of politicians looking at challenging Gillibrand. If those I mentioned above justified their interest by arguing that New York should have a liberal senator, what might now be driving others to take a look at the race is simply the realization that Gillibrand is vulnerable.

11 months after her appointment, and despite arguments that her media savvy would help her build a strong standing as she introduces herself to voters, polls are finding that Gillibrand is growing unpopular. Marist has found her approval rating declining month by month, with their latest survey finding her at a dismal 25-51; Siena and SUSA find her rating to be stronger but negative (33-45 and 41-42, respectively). This has some Democrats arguing that it would be risky to send Gillibrand to the general election, especially if Rudy Giuliani does jump in the Senate race (most people remain as skeptic that he will as they were before The Daily News reported he was set on running); and even if the general election isn’t competitive, at least Gillibrand no longer looks like as formidable a candidate as she was presented to be earlier this year.

Exhibit A of this shift is the jaw-dropping news that former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (who ran for Senate in 2006… in Tennessee) is considering running in the Democratic primary. I think most people thought this was a joke when they first heard about it earlier this week, but Politico sourced some associates willing to confirm that Ford was at least mulling the possibility and Crain’s secured some evidence that someone has been running a poll testing Ford’s viability.

Why this development is so surprising: Not only is it rare for a politician to run for Congress in two different states - especially at a small interval - but it would mean that Gillibrand would receive a primary challenge from the right! (Who would have predicted that in January 2009?) Ford was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition while in the House; so was Gillibrand, of course, but Ford’s senatorial ambitions only led him further to the right since he was running in a Southern state. Since he left Congress, he has presided over the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which is certainly not dear to progressives’ hearts. Might Ford be hoping to win the African-American vote, which would remedy some of the harm he’d suffer from his ideological positioning?

I have trouble seeing how Ford could find a path at victory - NYC’s black leaders would be unlikely to rally around his candidacy, he’d end up rallying liberals around Gillibrand and upstate counties are where Gillibrand was expected to be strongest in a primary - but it would certainly be a race worth watching.

Perhaps more worrisome for Gillibrand is the possibility that New York City Comptroller William Thompson might set his sights on the Senate after his unexpectedly narrow defeat in this month’s mayoral race. It all started with Rep. Jose Serrano (one of Gillibrand’s last House critics left since Nadler endorsed her and since McCarthy started working with her on gun control) circulating Thompson’s name as a potential candidate. “He is a progressive voice that hasn’t moved one way or the other over the years, and people would respect that,” Serrano said. This led The Daily News’s Liz Benjamin and The New York Times to confirm that he was indeed mulling the race - among other 2010 options - and Thompson himself was coy about the possibility when asked about it this week.

Due to his limited resources in this year’s race, Thompson did not have the opportunity to build the strongest campaign infrastructure but he did receive 46% of the general election vote (506,717 votes) after coasting to victory in the Democratic primary. Sure, Thompson has only ran in NYC elections, but don’t forget the vast majority of votes in 2006’s state primary came from the city: This is where many of the state’s Democratic voters are, and most just cast a ballot for Thompson. The comptroller could seek to mobilize African-Americans and progressives - if he can convince them that Gillibrand’s leftward turn should not be trust. Furthermore, the coverage he has received in the aftermath of the finish has arguably more helpful to his image than what he had able to secure before the election, and many of the city’s Democratic leaders will at the very least be weary of underestimating him.

In particular, Thompson is a rare Democrat who could be immune to pressure from the Democratic establishment: Given the extent to which the White House and the state’s party leaders ignored him throughout 2009. Much has been made of Obama’s remaining as distant as was possible, of Christin Quinn’s late endorsement, of the congresspeople who endorsed Bloomberg; given the result, it’s very plausible that Thompson would have prevailed had just some of these Democrats rallied by his side, helped him gain media coverage and raise money. As such, why would Thompson be as receptive as Israel and Maloney were to a phone-call from Obama or Schumer. (The Times remarks that Obama’s recent intervention against Paterson could make it harder for the White House to openly block Thompson.)

Gillibrand’s weak numbers and these primary rumors are continuing to drive GOP interest. Pataki was long the only name mentioned, which is why the news that Giuliani was leaning towards the Senate race took even Republicans by surprise. Another name that is now circulating: Larchmont Mayor Liz Feld is in the process of deciding whether she’ll jump in. She is far from the Republicans’ dream candidate (Larchmont is a small town, and she recently lost a state Senate race) but the GOP would be guilty of political malpractice if it did not field some credible candidate.

Checking in with Democratic senators who aren’t (yet?) GOP priorities

In recent weeks, Republicans have seen their prospects improve in a number of Senate races. 7 seats that Democrats must defend now look genuinely competitive: Nevada, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Colorado, Illinois and Pennsylvania? Can the NRSC put even more seats in play? New polls from the 4 Democratic seats that I currently rate “likely retention” (California, North Dakota, New York and Wisconsin) suggest it’s possible in some, less so in others.

(At the moment, there is no conceivable way for Indiana, Maryland, New York’s Schumer seat, Oregon, Vermont and Washington become vulnerable. Despite some early talk about a possible Inouye retirement and a potential Lingle candidacy, neither prospect is attracting any buzz so Hawaii looks safe as well.)

For the DSCC, the best news comes from Wisconsin: A week after Tommy Thompson opened the door to an electoral comeback in 2010, PPP finds that Senator Russ Feingold would easily survive a challenge by the former Governor: In what is the GOP’s dream match-up, the Democrat leads by a solid 50% to 41% margin. Feingold’s approval rating is far from formidable (45-37), but Thompson is too unpopular to topple an entrenched incumbent: His favorability rating stands at 38-45. Feingold leads two little-known Republicans (Terrence Wall and Dave Westlake) by 14% and 15%, though he is just below 50% in both match-ups.

More reassuring news for Democrats in California: Rasmussen finds Barbara Boxer leading Carly Fiorina (46% to 37%) and Chuck DeVore (46% to 36%). That doesn’t mean Boxer is safe (any incumbent under 50% is deemed vulnerable) but at the moment Democrats don’t have much reason to worry about the Golden State. For one, Rasmussen’s California surveys have consistently found more GOP-friendly results than has the Field Poll, generally considered the golden standard of California polling. Second, Boxer’s approval rating remains solid enough (51% to 41%) that it’s tough to envision the state’s Democratic-leaning electorate might consider voting for a Republican: Corzine’s approval rating was stuck in the 30s, and even he managed to come close.

This doesn’t mean that Thompson’s entry would not make Wisconsin a must-watch race or that Fiorina will not end up catch fire (after all, a University of Wisconsin poll released in October found Thompson leading Feingold, 43% to 39%); both Wisconsin and California could still become headaches for the DSCC. Yet, what’s clear is that Feingold and Boxer are in a stronger position going forward than Kirsten Gillibrand and Byron Dorgan, who would quickly vault to the top of the list of endangered incumbents if the NRSC manages to recruit its top candidates.

There’s been enough discussion of the confusion surrounding Rudy Giuliani’s 2010 plans that I don’t need to provide much detail about New York’s situation. While convincing arguments can be made that the former mayor will not end up as strong as he polls and that he has repeatedly proven himself a poor campaigner, the bottom-line for now is that a general election between Giuliani and Gillibrand would start as a toss-up at best. A Marist poll released last week found Giuliani) would start with a 54% to 40% lead (if she were to face George Pataki, Gillibrand would trail by a less dramatic 47% to 45%; by comparison, Zogby’s new survey finds the senator far stronger (she only Giuliani trails 45% to 43% and she leads Pataki 43% to 38%), but it’s nothing for her to boast about.

As for North Dakota, a Zogby poll released over the week-end explains why the GOP is so eager to recruit Governor John Hoeven, who has reportedly accepted to think about the race. The survey finds that he would start with a 55% to 36% lead against Senator Byron Dorgan. The poll leaves no doubt that Dorgan’s vulnerability entirely stems from Hoeven’s strength: The incumbent’s favorability rating stands at an extremely solid 73% (a number most incumbents would die for) and he crushes low-profile Republican Dune Sand 60% to 28%, demonstrating that North Dakotans aren’t at all desperate to dump their senator. The trouble comes from the fact that nearly every respondent likes Hoeven, whose favorability is an absurd 93%.

Frankly, these favorability ratings should make us take this poll with a big grain of salt. Mountain States incumbents are known to remain very popular, but can Hoeven’s favorability rating really be 93%? My skepticism was increased when I saw another Zogby poll, which finds Maine’s two Senators with ridiculously high favorability ratings. I don’t doubt Snowe is popular but 84% in no way matches what other recent polls have found.

So how does Zogby’s poll compare to other North Dakota surveys? A summer poll conducted by a Republican firm found Hoeven leading by a similar margin (53% to 36%) but a Research 2000 released all the way back in February had the Democrat ahead by 22%. In short: If Hoeven jumps in we’ll certainly need to see more polling data before proclaiming him the frontrunner, but probably not to consider Dorgan endangered.

Confusing rumors surround Rudy Giuliani

New York sure likes feeding the political gossip columns: 11 months after a wild night of rumors had David Paterson and Caroline Kennedy’s entourages denying stories and hurling insults left and right, it’s now Rudy Giuliani’s turn to be the subject of wild speculation.

The consensus seems to be that the former New York City mayor is set against running for Governor and that he either has decided to run for Senate or is leaning towards that option. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to know whether we actually learned anything definite.

The New York Times fired the first salvo in the early afternoon, reporting in the early afternoon that Giuliani had decided to pass on the Governor’s race. Within hours, other press outlets (for instance NY1) got confirmation from sources of their own that Giuliani was telling his entourage that he was set against running for Governor; the Daily News cites a source close to the state party chairman, who says they’ve been told as much.

On the other hand, Giuliani’s camp quickly denied that any decision had been taken and the Associated Press and The Washington Post cite anonymous GOP sources (I’m not talking about the official reaction of Giuliani’s spokesperson) insisting no final decision has been taken; both outlets do write that Giuliani is leaning away from a gubernatorial run.

The bottom-line here is that numerous papers managed to independently confirm the information, and do so using a variety of sources since at least a couple are close to Giuliani, at least one to chairman Cox. This does suggests the gubernatorial reports’ veracity, and if this holds up it would be a big blow to the GOP’s hopes of picking-up the state’s governorship. Even if Paterson somehow emerges as the Democratic nominee, he would at least have some chance of surviving; as for Andrew Cuomo, he would be sure he wouldn’t face any trouble in the general election.

Matters got more confusing when the Senate race was thrown into the mix: The Daily News reported that Giuliani was not only certain not to run for Governor, but that he had decided to challenge Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Shortly thereafter, the AP came out with a more tentative take, reporting that it was hearing that Giuliani had yet to make a final decision but that he is “becoming more interested in running for U.S. Senate.”

That is in and of itself news: Until today Giuliani was not considered to be seriously looking at the possibility of a congressional bid, but if there one thing we can say for sure tonight, it’s that a Senate run is definitely on Giuliani’s radar screen.

Needless to say, that’s music to the GOP’s ears: if he follows through, New York would become one of Republicans’ top takeover opportunities - adding a seat to the NRSC’s increasingly long target list. Just today, a Marist poll found Giuliani leading by a massive 54% to 40%! That margin doesn’t even seem like an outlier, since Siena found a similar result in its September survey; its November poll, released last week, had Giuliani leading by 5%.

What we cannot say for sure, however, is that Giuliani has reached any sort of final decision on the Senate race - let alone that he has started telling GOP operatives. Why is that information less reliable? For one, The Daily News mentions getting it from only a single source, and no other media outlet has managed to confirm it. Besides the AP’s insistence that Giuliani is merely leaning towards the Senate race, sources tell The Washington Post’s The Fix that a Senate run is “not likely.”

Second, Giuliani’s entourage was far more direct in denying the senatorial rumors than the gubernatorial ones. To the latter, they only responded with vague comments that didn’t rebut anything. To the former, however, the spokeswoman left no room for ambiguity: “It’s not true,” she said tonight. Third, most press outlets report talking to Republican operatives, which profess never having heard much about the prospect of a Giuliani Senate bid; as such, even if the former mayor has made up his mind to run, he certainly doesn’t seem to have reached out to those who’ll be in charge with mounting an infrastructure.

Finally, what should raise flags about the Daily News report is the following paragraph: “If elected, the source said, he could use that as a stepping stone to run for President in 2012 - rather than run for re-election to the Senate.” This makes very little sense, and it makes it seem like this source heard about some brainstorming session about Giuliani’s future and took that as his finalized plans.

Consider what it would mean for Giuliani to win a brutal Senate campaign in the fall of 2010, only to travel to Iowa and New Hampshire within weeks of being sworn in: How could he possibly position himself in such a way as to be competitive in a New York general election and not endanger his standing with the staunchly conservative voters that will decide the GOP’s presidential nomination? Giuliani isn’t one to develop sound electoral strategies, but it’s particularly hard to see how he could be viable under such a scenario - albeit one that serves as a remainder that whoever wins this seat next November will have to immediately run for a full term in 2012.

There will be plenty of time to analyze both the Senate and Governor’s races once we learn more about Giuliani’s intentions.

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