On Caroline Kennedy: If She’s to Be Anything Like Clinton, Schumer, or Her Uncle RFK, She Better Look North

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Caroline Kennedy gets poor reviews on her quick trip to Upstate New York, where she met the mayor of Syracuse. The attitude of many people in New York City is probably: Who cares? Upstate is the boondocks. Kennedy can be elected to a full term because she'll carry New York City by a huge margin and can probably run about even in the four suburban counties—Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, and Rockland—all of which Barack Obama carried this year.

To which I say: not so quick.

Upstate can make a lot of difference in New York elections, and a senator who doesn't have some hold on the Upstate vote cannot be considered to have a safe seat. Contrariwise, a Democratic senator who does have strength Upstate will be impossible to beat.

Here's the math.

Upstate casts about 40 percent of the general election votes in New York state (42 percent in the 2008 general election). Historically, it was Republican. But these days, it's much more open to a Democrat. He or she can lose the suburban counties (which used to be pretty Republican but aren't now) or white ethnic neighborhoods in New York's outer boroughs and still win comfortably statewide if he or she can run even or better Upstate. But Upstate has a different attitude toward celebrity candidates than voters in the New York City or the suburbs. Those voters are blasé about celebrities: they see them all the time, on the local news if not in person. Upstate is more like the Midwest. People there don't see much of celebrities, and they're eager to see them if they stop by. But they're suspicious of celebrities who spend all their time in the City and have no time for them. Which means that Upstate is good ground for celebrity candidates—but only if they spend a lot of time Upstate and demonstrate that they're genuinely interested in and (after a time, anyway) knowledgeable about it and its problems.

Here's the history.

Robert Kennedy did celebrity trips Upstate after he was selected as the Democratic nominee. He actually ran ahead of incumbent Sen. Kenneth Keating, who was from Rochester, in Upstate. But you have to recall the atmosphere of the time. This campaign took place less than a year after the assassination of President Kennedy, who was tremendously popular in Upstate New York. Remember that he had won 78 percent of the Catholic vote in 1960 and that Upstate was then (and is now) heavily Catholic. The enthusiasm among Catholic voters especially and among Upstaters in particular for the Kennedy family was far, far greater in 1964 than it is today.

Footnote: Robert Kennedy was attacked as a carpetbagger in New York, but, like Caroline Kennedy, he had actually done most of his growing up in the state. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, moved from Massachusetts to New York in 1927, two years after Robert Kennedy was born, and the family grew up in big houses in Riverdale in the Bronx and then in the suburb of Bronxville. The real Kennedy carpetbagger was John Kennedy, in Massachusetts; when he first ran for Congress in 1946, his legal address was 122 Bellevue Street, Boston, a hotel behind the State House on Beacon Hill where his grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, had an apartment. That remained John Kennedy's legal address until after he was elected president. But Kennedy family mythology was that they were a Massachusetts family, and so Robert Kennedy could not make the otherwise entirely valid point that he had grown up in New York.

Pat Moynihan actually was an Upstater: His New York residence, where he was registered to vote for some years before he became a Senate candidate in 1976, was his farm in Pindars Corners in Delaware County. (He told me that he registered there to vote against a local official who wanted to cut down a line of trees near his farm, and that when, as ambassador to the United Nations, he was sounded out to run for the Senate in New York, he told his interlocutors that he was already a New York voter.) He was also a graduate of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and he knew the history of each Upstate county courthouse. He could wax eloquent on the civic glories of Buffalo (yes, there are some, and I've heard him do so without much prompting). He spent considerable time Upstate, and Upstaters could tell that he knew the region and cared about it.

Hillary Clinton understood the Upstate problem and devoted a great deal of time and effort to addressing it. The Clintons took their summer vacation in Canandaiagua in the Finger Lakes in Ontario County (a lovely town, by the way). She asked Moynihan to endorse her, and to do so at his farm in Pindars Corners—a great and greatly Upstate photo op. She spent days and days and days on her Upstate listening tour. Many in the elite class that would consider vacationing anywhere but the Hamptons or the Vineyard or Nantucket as unbearable would have considered this the most tedious thing possible. But Clinton the workhorse took the time, asked the questions, and developed the range of knowledge that would serve her well. She has returned to Upstate many times and has always treated Upstaters and Upstate problems with respect. She doesn't give off the air that she would like to be somewhere else.

Chuck Schumer, elected to the Senate two years before Clinton, has taken Upstate seriously, too. He has made a practice of making a Monday tour of Upstate, meeting with public officials and others and getting himself on the local newscasts each Monday in the Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany media markets.

Caroline Kennedy can't match any of this in the time she has between now and whenever Gov. David Paterson appoints her (assuming he will). She is not the world-class celebrity her uncle Robert was in 1964. She has nothing of the Upstate background of Pat Moynihan. I assume she vacations—someone please correct me if I'm wrong—exclusively on the Vineyard and in the Hamptons, with only the most occasional trip to Hyannisport. I wonder if she's ever spent any time Upstate or if she could identify more than two or three cities there. Of course, she can work Upstate as hard as Hillary Clinton did after she becomes a senator. But I think Upstaters appreciated the time and effort Robert Kennedy and Pat Moynihan and Hillary Clinton put in Upstate before they were senators, when they were asking Upstaters to make them senators.

In retrospect, the right move for Caroline Kennedy to have made, several years ago, was to buy a highly visible vacation home in the Finger Lakes, to spend a lot of time there, and to make side trips with her children (if they were the right age) or friends to Upstate's very interesting historical sites—the Erie Canal, the site of the 1848 women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, the places where the antislavery movement began, etc. But of course neither she nor any of the rest of us thought that Hillary Clinton's Senate seat would be open for more than a generation.

The good news for Caroline Kennedy is that, since popular election of senators came in, no Democratic senator from New York has been defeated for re-election. The bad news for Caroline Kennedy is that she won't be running for re-election in 2010, since she wasn't elected in the first place. No Democrat has been appointed to a Senate seat from New York before. The only appointees have been Republicans, and both were defeated when they came up for election (John Foster Dulles in 1949 and Charles Goodell in 1970).

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