99TH IN SENATE, GILLIBRAND FACES MANY CHALLENGES

New York's junior senator needs to stand out, raise money for 2010 election

JENNIFER A. DLOUHY TIMES UNION WASHINGTON BUREAU
Section: Main,  Page: A8

Date: Saturday, January 24, 2009

WASHINGTON -- When Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand takes her newly designated seat in the U.S. Senate on Monday, she will be stuck at the back of the pack in seniority -- likely ranked 99 out of the 100 senators in the chamber.


And that's only one of the many challenges that will immediately confront Gillibrand as she moves from her two-year-old job in the House to the vaunted upper chamber on the other side of the Capitol.


"Every Senate appointee goes through a shakedown cruise, in the Senate and in the home state," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "She will have both."


Gillibrand could confront her first test on day one: Although she is seeking seats on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chamber's Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, the roster for Armed Services is already full with 15 Democrats.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will dole out Gillibrand's assignments, likely giving her the agriculture spot she wants and picking from still-open seats on the chamber's banking, environment, health, homeland security, Indian affairs and foreign relations panels.


Some of the committees -- particularly the homeland security panel and the banking committee on which New York's Sen. Charles Schumer already serves -- could give Gillibrand a platform to raise her national profile and focus on issues important to downstate voters.


In the next two years, Gillibrand will be ever-mindful that some liberal Democrats are eager to mount a primary challenge against her -- a threat that could factor into every vote she takes on the Senate floor.


With that in mind, Gillibrand likely will be forced to tack to the left on guns, immigration and fiscal policy -- even though she has taken a moderate stance on those issues while representing her conservative upstate district in the House.


Without the star power or high profile of her predecessor in the Senate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand will spend the next two years building her name recognition across New York and the nation.


Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor with New York City's Baruch College, said Gillibrand needs a national profile to raise the big money needed to compete to keep her Senate seat in two years.


Gillibrand has proven fundraising prowess: She raised more than $4 million for her reelection. But Senate races in New York state are notoriously expensive; during the 2000 race, Clinton and Republicans Rick Lazio and Rudolph Giuliani spent $90 million.


With a late start fundraising, Gillibrand will be looking to Democratic Party leaders for financial help. Her biggest ally could be a new Senate colleague, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.


As long as she isn't an "unmitigated disaster" over the next two years, the DSCC will "pump whatever money they can into this race," Muzzio predicted.


The biggest asset Gillibrand has in the Senate is the vested interest of her fellow Democrats in keeping her seat in their party's control. That means that Democratic Party leaders will want to help her, whether it comes to doling out campaign cash or letting her take a lead role on high-profile legislation.


"They know their interests are in helping her and making her secure (politically)," Sabato said. "She'll have everybody's cooperation."


Democratic leaders also could leverage Gillibrand's bids to send federal dollars back to New York, whether as part of the economic stimulus bill being debated now or the annual government spending bills.


"The Democrats don't want to lose this seat," Muzzio said, "so they're going to give her as much as they are able."