Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Is Kirsten Gillibrand the New Senator from New York State or New York City???

Back in December I wrote a post about the advantages, if any, possessed by statewide candidates who hail from their state's largest city. What we see with the current Senate is no real correlation between electoral success and one's residence. Today's New York Times runs a profile of the newly appointed Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand. The former House Rep. hails from an upstate (and traditionally Republican) district centered around Albany. She originally won the seat in 2006, defeating Republican incumbent John Sweeney.

In the story, a short snippet caught my attention that is pertinent to this question of whether it matters where in a state a candidate comes from:

Her appointment occasioned yawps of disappointment from downstate Democrats, who tend to view Senate seats as proprietary possessions. Charles E. Goodell, who was appointed to fill Robert F. Kennedy’s seat in 1968, was the last senator to come from outside New York City or its suburbs.

If there's any state in the country where the big ciy/out state dynamic is more pronounced than New York, I can't think of one. In the weeks leading up to the appointment, one of Gillibrand's biggest advocates was New York's other senator, and former head of the DSCC, Chuck Schumer. That the Brooklynite would go to bat for Gillibrand indicates that he thinks she can win NY city area voters. His track record in recruiting candidates over the past two cycles is beyond reproach, it seems, given the Dems pickup of 13 seats and reclamation of the majority. To give a sense of how much of the New York vote is provided by the metro area, I looked at the 2008 totals by county. Statewide, there were 7,594,813 votes cast. Using a somewhat broad definition of the NY metro area, the relevant county vote was:

New York (Manhattan): 667,594
Kings (Brooklyn): 759, 848
Queens: 597,695
Bronx: 381,322
Richmond (Staten Island): 166,578
Nassau: 635,482
Suffolk: 659,403
Westchester: 413,044
Rockland: 132,193

All told, then, the yield out of this part of the state was 4,413,159 votes or 58% of the statewide total. When one looks at how these counties voted, one sees both the wisdom in the Gillibrand pick, and the danger. Here is Obama's % of the vote in each county:

New York: 86%
Kings: 79%
Queens: 75%
Bronx: 89%
Richmond: 47%
Nassau: 54%
Suffolk: 53%
Westchester: 64%
Rockland: 53%

So, while the immediate NY city area is overwhelmingly Democratic (with the exception of Staten Island), the Democratic vote share declines as one moves out into the broader suburban counties. Though these counties still went blue, one can imagine these voters being receptive to a candidate who has a much more moderate profile than a traditional liberal from the boroughs. This was no doubt on Schumer's mind as he pushed her candidacy. Gillibrand will have to defend the seat in 2010 so someone with a bigger base of support (coupled with a great fundraising record) would seem to have a leg up.

What's the danger?? While Gillibrand's candidacy has a lot of "up state up side", she needs to watch her left flank. As the Times article makes clear, on issues such as gun control and immigration her voting record has been to the right of most of her Democratic colleagues. Thus, she opens herself up for a potential primary challenge. There was speculation during the appointment process that more liberal House reps. such as Carolyn Maloney (14th) and Jerold Nadler (8th) were being considered. So, as the new senator begins to learn the issues of importance to a broader constituency, she must do so fearing the City's desire to reclaim its "rightful" ownership of the seat.

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