News & Politics

Barrett: Schumer Protects Gillibrand from a Primary Challenge Citing His Record On Such Matters — So We Checked That Record


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…

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
, 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

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).

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
election 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.

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
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
that her House voting record was “one of the most conservative
in the state.”

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.

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.

(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
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.

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

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.

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

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