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Eye on the Island: August 14, 2009

House Is Their Home

President Obama and Senator Schumer got where they are today after winning hard-fought, wildly-expensive Democratic primary contests.

But the two of them have seemingly played a pivotal role in making sure there is no viable Democratic challenger to U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in September 2010’s party primary. The conventional wisdom holds that, if Gillibrand faces only nominal Democratic opposition, she’ll be in a better position to win the general election in November 2010.

Three members of the U.S. House of Representatives—Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola)—all made noises about challenging Senator Gillibrand in a Democratic primary in the months after Gillibrand was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2009. Representatives Israel, Maloney and McCarthy have said in recent weeks that they will not run for the U.S. Senate. They cited reasons not worth repeating here because so few of them were true.

Running a statewide primary against Senator Gillibrand would have been a lonely endeavor. The White House and Senator Schumer indicated that Democratic donors who contributed to a Gillibrand rival would have to explain themselves and, if you’re a Democratic campaign operative, good luck finding another gig if you signed on with a candidate who had the moxie of Representative Schumer, circa 1998, or Senator Obama in 2008.

Still, I was surprised that the bark of Representatives Israel, Maloney and McCarthy is way worse than their bite. Is being a backbencher in the U.S. House of Representatives, even as part of the majority, really such a great gig? Isn’t running for office every two years a grind?

Doesn’t the six-year term of a U.S. Senator sound like a nice alternative? Plus, in the U.S. Senate, there’s national media exposure. In the U.S. House, only those holding leadership positions can be picked out of a police line-up by the typical voter.

Representatives Israel, Maloney and McCarthy opted in the end for job security. A 2010 Senate bid would have required them to give up their House seats. By making peace with the party bosses, the U.S. House appears to be their final career stop and, when you consider Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan) is 79, the three of them could be in Congress for another decade or so. Israel is 51, Maloney is 63, and McCarthy is 65.

The three of them will in November 2010 probably pull the lever for whoever the Republican candidate is against Senator Gillibrand. It will be their silent protest against a former U.S. House colleague who they once portrayed as, and still believe is, a gun-loving, tobacco-defending zealot.

My guess is there are many registered Democrats who will do the same, and it is how a Republican can win statewide in New York. That’s why I hope either Representative Peter King (R-Seaford) or former Governor George Pataki run against Senator Gillibrand. Both would be credible, well-funded candidates in 2010, a year when Democratic seats could flip into the GOP column in the unlikeliest of places, such as Connecticut (Dodd), Pennsylvania (Specter) and Illinois (Burris is stepping down).

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism.