The decision of Rep. Bob Turner (R-Queens) to jump into the race against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) Tuesday caught many political observers by surprise and suddenly made Gillibrand’s quest for re-election anything but a cakewalk, according to analysts.
“It was like throwing a grenade into the race,” said one Republican insider. “It really shakes everything up.”
Many Republicans believe Turner could provide the heft they were looking for to seriously challenge Gillibrand, who many believe is vulnerable in her first race to win a full six-year term.
Turner’s decision came just two days after his spokesman was quoted as saying that although Turner was “flattered to be discussed as a potential Gillibrand challenger,” he preferred to wait and see what his district’s new lines would look like after redistricting before deciding whether to make the run.
But knowledgeable sources said that on Monday Turner saw that the Legislature was prepared to accept the congressional lines proposed by Special Master Roanne Mann, a federal magistrate. That map called for the elimination of Turner’s 9th Congressional District. Several sources said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver decided not to contest Mann’s map rather than get into a tug of war between Hispanic and African-American activists fighting over the new congressional lines of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan).
By Tuesday morning, Turner began calling supporters to tell them of this decision. Shortly after noon, he released a statement that read: “I will travel to the Republican State Convention in Rochester later this week and humbly ask for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate.”
Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said those were words many Republicans were happy to hear because the party “needed someone who could raise $20 million, which is hard to do except for a sitting congressman” or for someone who is independently wealthy and willing to make the investment.
“To be competitive in this race, you have to raise real money because she is good at that,” he said of Gillibrand. “If Jews are an important voting bloc [in this race], Turner has made inroads into the Jewish community. He is likeable and is a hard worker. Republicans are looking for an opportunity to create statewide momentum,” which is something Turner can give them.
But the road to the Republican nomination will not be paved with gold. Turner has two or possibly three serious contenders to face at Friday’s convention in Rochester. Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos has received the endorsement of both the Nassau and Suffolk Republican Committees; attorney Wendy Long has strong backing from Conservative Party leader Michael Long (no relation); and Rye Town Supervisor Joe Carvin has announced that he too is in the race.
Nassau Republican officials said they continue to support Maragos.
“He’s our favorite son,” said one official.
John Jay LaValle, the Republican Suffolk Committee Chairman, told The Jewish Week that he remains committed to Maragos.
“It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We’re staying with Maragos.”
LaValle said Turner would certainly be a “formidable candidate,” but he is not convinced that Turner’s upset victory in a special election last year to fill the seat vacated by disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, would carry over to a statewide Senate race.
“I don’t think we can use that win alone as the basis for believing he will win again,” he said. “But I understand he has some personal resources to put in the race and he has the potential of being a good candidate.”
Others pointed out that Turner’s victory in a Democratic district last year was based on a lot of circumstances and that it is unclear whether people voted for him because he was the best candidate or because they were rejecting President Barack Obama or Weiner. In addition, Turner’s unequivocal support for the State of Israel resonated among Jews in the district at a time when Obama’s positions on Israel were not that popular there.
“All the stars were lined up for Turner in that election,” said one Republican official, who pointed out in the next breath that Turner is not a great candidate because he is not a captivating speaker and lacks charisma.
If more than one of the candidates receives at least 25 percent of the vote at Friday’s convention, he or she would be guaranteed a place on the primary ballot without having to collect signatures to get on the ballot.
Gillibrand is seen by many as vulnerable in this election because of the way she transformed herself from being an upstate moderate in the House of Representatives to a liberal in the Senate. Gov. David Paterson plucked her from relative obscurity in 2009 to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who left to become secretary of state. The next year, she won the election to fill the unexpired portion of Clinton’s term.
Observers say Gillibrand has shown herself to be a hard worker, and New York is a Democratic state that is expected to vote to re-elect Obama. Although Turner appears to be the highest profile Republican seeking to oust her, it is a long shot. As one Republican insider put it: “Turner was given a choice of running in a new, heavily African American district he couldn’t win or running for the Senate. Both were Hail Mary passes. He chose the 40-yarder rather than the 80-yarder.”