As my colleague Tom Robbins explained last month, Chuck Schumer has been flexing his considerable muscle to make sure that no elected Democrat challenges Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the accidental incumbent, in a 2010 Democratic primary.
Schumer has been so persuasive, Rahm Emanuel, and the president himself, cajoled Congressman Steve Israel to get out of the race. Joe Biden even recently dialed up Carolyn Maloney, the last of a once wide field of Democrats in the House still considering a run, and added to the pressure she’s feeling about taking on Gillibrand, who has been in Congress a fraction of the time Maloney has (and with far less to show for it).
Schumer was good enough to explain his thinking in a recent interview, saying that preventing primary fights between Democrats has worked as a strategy for gains in the Senate, and he provided a guided tour of several recent primaries in several states as examples. When he was chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in 2006 and 2008, Schumer picked up 14 Senate seats, counting Al Franken’s. Schumer stepped down from that lofty perch last year, but he’s pointing to his record to explain why he wants to make sure Gillibrand faces no challenge from her own party.
I’ve compared his version of events with the discoverable facts on the ground — as well as examined some state races he failed to mention — to see if his rationale for banning a Gillibrand primary really matches the record…
Ironically, Schumer freely acknowledges that he benefited from the contested 1998 primary that catapulted him to a November victory over longtime New York Republican incumbent Al D’Amato (Schumer’s 2007 book, Positively American, describes his primary win over Geraldine Ferraro — who he started out trailing by 36 points and beat by 25 — as a magnificent gearing up of his campaign team for his November win over Al D’Amato). Asked if he’d ever tried to prevent a primary to protect an unelected senator appointed by an unelected governor, as he is trying to do with Gillibrand, Schumer said: “I look at it a little differently. She’s an incumbent.”
Schumer dismissed polls like the May Marist poll, which found that only 19 percent thought Gillibrand was doing a good or excellent job, while 38 percent thought she was doing a fair or poor job and 43 percent were unable to rate her performance. The poll also calculated that Gillibrand would barely beat Maloney but lose to former General George Pataki in hypothetical 2010 primary and general elections. While the more recent Siena poll has her and Pataki tied, her favorables have never exceeded the low 30s. Schumer claims that the polls reveal that she is “unknown” to “50 to 60 percent” of voters, suggesting, said Schumer, that these early polls “don’t mean” anything (he overstated those who can’t rate her by 7 to 17 percent and came up with the term “unknown” himself).
Schumer may not want another Democrat to go up against Gillibrand, but does that also mean he wants Paterson to face no Democratic opposition in a primary for governor? Schumer says he sees the Senate as “a different thing.” He insisted that we’re “not there yet” on the Paterson primary question, adding that it’s “not an analogy” (he’s ostensibly waiting to see if Paterson’s continuing poll plummet convinces the governor to drop out before 2010).
As strongly as Schumer now supports Gillibrand, he insists that he “never told the governor” to appoint her, claiming that he only offered Paterson “the pros and cons of each” of the prospective candidates before the governor picked Gillibrand in December. “Did I say she might be better than one or two of the others?” Schumer asked rhetorically, acknowledging that he did, but refusing to say who the losers were on his list of options. The senator maintains that he’s “not changing my role” in New York politics, insisting that “I still don’t” want to run Democratic politics in the state, a promise he made shortly after his melection a decade ago that appears inconsistent with his Gillibrand maneuvers. “I asked the White House to be supportive of Gillibrand,” Schumer says, admitting that, among other things, he “heard that Biden might be calling Maloney,” but denying that he was the cause for the call.
He said he had nothing to do with his former aide Josh Isay’s decision to pull out of the Maloney campaign a day after news stories said Isay’s consulting firm, Knickerbocker SKD, would become a key consultant to her Senate effort. Schumer said “I didn’t consult with Josh,” whose website’s main page consists entirely of a quote from Schumer praising the company. SKD was paid $369,733 by the DSCC from August to October of 2008 alone, and Schumer’s replacement as chair, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, is also backing Gillibrand. DSCC expects their consultants not to work for candidates running against their favored selections, one consultant told the Voice.
Schumer appeared unconcerned about the fungible positions Gillibrand has taken on key issues, likening her switches on immigration, guns and other issues to his own change of heart on farm
subsidies when he left the House and began representing a statewide constituency in the Senate. Schumer calls it a “grow and learn” process, contrasting his knee jerk vote against subsidies to actually authoring bills for them once he began representing the agricultural parts of the state. The senator apparently sees no difference between his onetime ignorance about farming and Gillibrand’s 100 percent NRA rating. She now contends that was a result of her rural ignorance of the perils of big city gun violence, though she actually lived in the city for more than a decade immediately before moving upstate just a few years ago (where she kept two guns under her bed).
“Her votes in the Senate matter far more than her votes in the House,” Schumer said. “People have to take into account the whole picture.” Schumer stressed that she was also pro-labor, pro-choice and pro-gay rights and “had some ability to take a stand” even before her recent Senate elevation (actually her rating on gay issues was the lowest among New York Democrats in the House and Senate). Schumer said he was unfamiliar with her pro-war record. His staff offered no response when I reminded them that she’d said herself that her House voting record was “one of the most conservative in the state.”
Schumer’s history lesson began with the assertion that there’s been “a whole lot of damaging primaries” that reduced Democratic chances at winning Senate seats and ended with his proud admission that he’s “prevented a lot of primaries.” He said he’s had to make “gut decisions all the time” about which was the strongest Democrat to back and that polls, like in Gillibrand’s case, were rarely a key factor in those choices; he has relied instead on his own judgment and that of leading Democrats in each state. Here’s a state-by-state breakdown of how the Schumer strategy worked out:
Florida, 2004: This was the only “destructive primary” that Schumer cited as rationale for his decision to change DSCC strategy when he agreed to take over the committee after the 2004 debacle, when the Democrats lost a net four seats. Schumer is right that Betty Castor, the state’s former education commissioner, beat two other prominent Democrats in a nasty Florida primary for the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Bob Graham. But Castor was still consistently ahead in general election polls after the primary, meaning that the primary didn’t destroy her candidacy. The seven-way Republican primary, meanwhile, was so vicious that Mel Martinez won by gay-baiting Bill McCollum, the House Republican who later became the state’s attorney general, forcing McCollum to accuse Martinez of feeding “hatred and bigotry”. Most observers attributed Castor’s eventual one point loss to Martinez to the size of George Bush’s five point margin in Florida.
The Democrats lost five other seats in 2004, including that of their leader Tom Daschle, and primaries played no role in any of those losses either. The party also managed to win two seats previously occupied by Republicans and the winners, Barack Obama in Illinois and Ken Salazar in Colorado, weren’t wounded by hotly contested primaries. Schumer’s decision to try to prevent primaries was certainly not rooted in the 2004 results.
Pennsylvania (2006), Ohio (2006) and New Mexico (2008): Schumer cited these three states as examples of his ban on primaries working, allowing Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, and Tom Udall, respectively, to take seats away from the GOP. Schumer forced Democratic challengers like Pennsylvania’s Barbara Hafer, Ohio’s Paul Hackett and Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez out of primaries, clearing the Democratic field. As hard as it is to argue with the results in these three races, the DSCC justified the strategy by contending that it was trying “to avoid primaries where GOP Senate seats are up for grabs.” Gillibrand’s seat, on the other hand, has been Democratic for decades, in a state where all five statewide elected officials are Democrats.
Even Schumer conceded in our interview that an Emily’s List leader told him that the pro-choice Hafer would have beaten Republican Rick Santorum, just as the pro-life Casey did, a point Schumer didn’t dispute. Hafer, who had won four statewide races, is still smarting: “I didn’t like that Governor Ed Rendell encouraged me to run and I prepared myself to do so for a few years, and then Rendell called me because Schumer put pressure on him,” she told the Voice. (While Schumer didn’t mention Sheldon Whitehouse’s pick-up of a Republican seat in Rhode Island in 2006, his staff did. A primary was averted when the Democratic secretary of state dropped out, but his departure was largely attributed to the fact that he spent virtually everything he raised extremely early.)
Montana (2006) and Oregon (2008): Schumer cited both of these races as examples of big DSCC wins, going so far in his book as to mention the new Montana senator, Jon Tester, as an example of how “we did our own research and picked the best candidate.” He wrote that Tester “wouldn’t have played in Rhode Island,” but was “the embodiment of the Montana farmer,” citing him as an example of how he found “the better fit” in each state. In fact, Schumer’s office concedes now that the DSCC did not support Tester in the primary race against State Auditor John Morrison. Montana bloggers suggested that Schumer was even trying to help Morrison, but Morrison told the Voice that “the committee was officially neutral and never showed me any favoritism that I knew about.”
In Oregon, Schumer backed State House Speaker Jeff Merkley against 4 foot 9 inch Steve Novick, whose TV promise to “stand up for the little guy” resonated so strongly he nearly defeated Merkley In our interview, Schumer pointed at the race as an example of one where he followed his gut even though Novick outpolled Merkley, and Merkley eventually beat GOP incumbent Gordon Smith. “Schumer has a very good track record,” Novick told the Voice, “but that doesn’t mean he wound up opposing people” in primaries who “would have lost” in general elections. “I think primaries are healthy. I’m not sure it helped Jeff, but it clearly didn’t hurt him.”
Virginia (2006) and North Carolina (2008): Schumer mentioned Jim Webb’s victory in Virginia as a DSCC triumph, which it surely was, since the DSCC identified Webb early and pushed him all the way to a November takeaway of a Republican seat. He said the same about Kay Hagan in North Carolina. What Schumer didn’t mention is that both wins are examples of how contested primaries don’t hurt, just like the Tester and Merkley races are. Webb beat a well-financed Harris Miller by six points in a primary, and Hagan walloped a wealthy gay businessman, Jim Neal, on her way to topping Elizabeth Dole in November. Neal, who was competitive with Hagan in the polls until the final weeks, when his grassroots campaign ran out of money, told the Voice: “A top-ranking official of the Hagan campaign told me that Kay was a much, much stronger candidate as a result of the primary. A primary is a warm-up. To suggest that it weakens — to the contrary. People warm up to get ready. It seems to me that Senator Schumer is advocating that we stop having elections and we start having coronations.”
Tennessee (2006): Schumer’s candidate Harold Ford lost in November after State Senator Rosalind Kurita abandoned her primary campaign, charging, as did Iraq war vet Paul Hackett in Ohio and others, that Schumer had effectively shut down her ability to raise funds. An embittered Kurita wound up voting with the Republicans to install a GOP state Senate leader, just like Pedro Espada recently did in New York.
This chronicle of key races, led by the ones cited by Schumer himself, makes no case for Schumer’s current attempt to block a primary against Gillibrand. The only times when Schumer prevented primaries and won in November, his strategy was designed to take a seat away from the Republicans, hardly the Gillibrand situation. While Schumer won three times (Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Mexico), he lost once (Tennessee), and there’s no evidence that the candidates who were forced out were any less likely to win than the ones who did (especially in Pennsylvania). There are no real examples of destructive primaries, and many solid examples of primaries that appeared to help.
With this as the history, Schumer’s heavy-handed intervention on behalf of one of the newest faces in the Senate, whose scant record collides with so many party principles in this state, appears increasingly to be nothing less than a naked power play. With the possibility that Gillibrand could lose — either in a primary or against a strong Republican like Pataki — it may be Schumer who winds up looking a little less like a political genius when he brings his strategic muscle home.
Research Credit: Johanna Barr, Georgia Bobley, Tom Feeney Jr., Lucy Jordan, Jane C. Timm