RYE BROOK, N.Y. — New York has the unusual distinction of hosting two U.S. Senate contests this year, and each features an incumbent Democrat in a national political environment that appears to favor Republicans and challengers. So why do Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand seem like safe bets?
It's a big relief for national Democratic Party strategists, who had been bracing for the possibility of defending two seats in costly New York races. And it's a disappointment for national Republicans who helped Scott Brown win a special election to replace the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and have been eager to make inroads in other "blue" strongholds.
Schumer, New York's senior senator, had nearly $22 million in the bank as of the last campaign finance filing and has drawn just token opposition as he campaigns for a third term. While Schumer is a workhorse with deep ties to the state, he also is a longtime Washington insider and member of the party leadership — the kind of political profile that has made other incumbents, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, so vulnerable. [See who is donating money to Schumer's campaign.]
Gillibrand, a former upstate congresswoman whom Gov. David Paterson appointed to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton after Clinton became secretary of state, was widely viewed as one of the party's weakest standard-bearers only months ago. [See where Gillibrand's campaign money is coming from.]
But under pressure from the White House and party strategists in Washington, Democrats including Rep. Carolyn Maloney and former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford opted not to mount a primary challenge against Gillibrand. The state's best known Republicans — former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. George Pataki — decided not to run as well.
Competing to challenge Gillibrand are Republicans including former Rep. Joe DioGuardi, businessman David Malpass and attorney Bruce Brakeman, but none is seen as a strong threat.
Both Schumer and Gillibrand accepted their party's nominations at the state Democratic convention Wednesday. Schumer vowed to work for the state "with every bone in my body" whether it was an election year or not, while Gillibrand framed her relative newcomer status an asset.
"I may not have been in Washington long, but I've been there long enough to know what's wrong with it," she said. "The voices of ordinary Americans are not being heard."
Steven Greenberg, director of polling for the Siena Research Institute, said voters in New York are angry and frustrated with government, just as they are in other states. The difference in New York is that it isn't being taken out on Democrats, he said — at least not yet.
"I don't see any evidence that New York Democrats are in an upheaval, or that New York Democrats are looking to leave the party, or that independents are voting straight Republican," Greenberg said. "There is no evidence of that at the state or the local level — what we see is voters in New York are acting like voters in New York."
Indeed, a Siena Poll released this week found Gillibrand with her highest supportive ratings to date and showed her leading her potential challengers by at least 26 points. Schumer's lead was a staggering 39 points.
Still, Schumer and Gillibrand's safe re-election prospects can't entirely be credited to the fact that New York is a Democratic state.
The same could be said for Massachusetts, where Brown won handily over Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. And other incumbent Democratic senators in other "blue" states are girding for tough campaigns, including Barbara Boxer in California and Maria Cantwell in Washington.
New York's Democratic House members face a perilous climate, with at least five and perhaps as many as 10 Democratic incumbents regarded as vulnerable. And Republicans have a good chance of recapturing the state Senate that Democrats narrowly took control of in 2008.
The Siena Poll's Greenberg said the stars had aligned for Schumer and Gillibrand — not to mention Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate — for three simple reasons.
"Schumer, behind Andrew Cuomo, is the most popular elected official in the state. Gillibrand is working hard and will be known come November. And the Republicans have no bench," Greenberg said.
For his part, state Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox is holding out hope for an upset. "The Republicans can compete very well," he said.