Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Freshman: Barely in Office, but G.O.P. Rivals Are Circling

The New York Times
The Freshman
Barely in Office, but G.O.P. Rivals Are Circling

MILFORD, N.Y. — The furniture has yet to arrive for one of the offices that Kirsten Gillibrand, a freshman Democrat in Congress, recently opened here. But the list of Republicans angling to challenge her next year is already growing.

Alexander F. Treadwell, a former state Republican Party chairman, opened a headquarters near Ms. Gillibrand’s main office in Saratoga Springs and has assembled a campaign staff, including a former political director for the House Republicans’ re-election committee.

Richard Wager, an aide to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City, formed a campaign committee and is raising money from his old network of allies, including well-heeled donors on Wall Street.

And several other potential rivals — including a retired United States Army lieutenant colonel, a former candidate for governor and even the man Ms. Gillibrand defeated last year — are considering a run.

It may seem unusually early for the opposition to begin mobilizing against Ms. Gillibrand, who only recently wrote and introduced her first bill since arriving in Washington four months ago. But the maneuvering reflects a growing confidence among Republicans that they can win back the district, where the vast majority of voters are registered to their party.

Indeed, Republican officials in Washington are so confident of Ms. Gillibrand’s vulnerabilities that they say they intend to field test an array of themes in the district that they believe can be applied to other freshman Democrats around the country.

Chief among those themes: Ms. Gillibrand’s willingness to collect special-interest money despite having deplored the influence of special interests in Washington as a candidate last year, and her propensity for voting with what they call the party’s left-leaning leadership after having campaigned as a centrist.

“There are a lot of these recently elected Democrats who claimed to be reformers of the system on the campaign trail but have turned out to be something quite different,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

All this has placed enormous pressure on Ms. Gillibrand, 40, to raise a great deal of money just months after she won her seat in November. Though her advisers say raising money does not detract from legislating, there is little question it has lengthened her workweek.

Those demands were evident one recent weekend, when she arrived late to a family barbecue after having attended both a fund-raiser in Cooperstown and a town-hall-style meeting in Milford where officials and residents aired their concerns about issues like the local economy and schools.

The event in Cooperstown was the eighth fund-raising reception this year held by Ms. Gillibrand, one of the largest fund-raisers in the House in the first four months of this year, having taken in nearly $700,000.

“It’s the reality of modern-day politics,” she said, with a hint of resignation in her voice.

Ms. Gillibrand has agreed to allow The New York Times to chronicle her first year in office representing New York’s 20th Congressional District, which runs from the mid-Hudson Valley to Lake Placid.

For her and other freshman lawmakers, it is a time of intense learning and sudden challenges, harried travel and nonstop work. But it is also a period of political peril: Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, has found that while veteran incumbents enjoy a re-election rate of 98 percent, the rate drops to less than 92 percent for first-term incumbents.

Not surprisingly then, 30 of the 41 Democratic freshmen in the House are facing Republicans who have either announced their candidacies or are said to have plans to announce them, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Political analysts in both parties predict that the race will cost much more than the roughly $6 million that Ms. Gillibrand and her Republican predecessor, John E. Sweeney, spent on their campaigns last year.

John Nolan, who is known as Jasper and has been chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Committee for the past 20 years, says that he has been telling prospective candidates that they will need at least $1 million by the beginning of next year if they hope to compete effectively.

“It’s never too early to start running when you are going up against an incumbent,” he said. “You can’t wait until 2008.”

But even Republicans are aware that there are risks in gearing up this early in a district where there is ample evidence that the bitterly contested race between Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Sweeney left voters weary.

A reminder of those perils came a few weeks ago when the editor of The Glens Falls Post-Star described the Republicans moving to challenge her as “piranhas” and pointedly asked in a column, “Shouldn’t someone be allowed to do their job for at least a year before they have to worry about keeping it?”

Still, Republicans have not been shy about attacking Ms. Gillibrand, for example, by trying to use one of her own open-government ideas against her.

Shortly after taking office, Ms. Gillibrand directed her staff to publish the details of her meetings, no matter how sensitive, on her Congressional Web site, calling the listing the Sunlight Report.

But Republicans see these reports as a potential trove of damaging information. Examining them, they discovered, for instance, that Ms. Gillibrand, while vacationing with her family in Europe recently, held several fund-raisers for her re-election campaign, including two in London and one in Paris.

Michael Brady, a former National Republican Congressional Committee operative, disseminated the information on a new Internet news service, the Majority Accountability Project, that he started, noting that it is illegal for foreign citizens to contribute to American campaigns. (The Gillibrand camp insisted that attendees were required to show American passports before being permitted into the events and that no money was donated by foreign citizens.)

In an interview, Mr. Brady accused Ms. Gillibrand of hypocrisy, saying that she had denounced Mr. Sweeney during the campaign for holding a weekend fund-raiser with pharmaceutical lobbyists at a ski resort in Park City, Utah.

“This is a woman who criticized her opponent for going to Utah, and here she is going to fund-raisers in foreign countries,” Mr. Brady said.

But to Gillibrand supporters who have been concerned that Republicans may use her Sunlight Report against her, the episode shows that “no good deed goes unpunished,” as one of her advisers put it.

Republicans are also depicting Ms. Gillibrand as a liberal who is cloaking her true ideological leanings behind the politically moderate language she employs in her public appearances in the district, as well as in her mailings.

Mr. Nolan, the Republican leader in Saratoga, is seeking to tie Ms. Gillibrand to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi — a strategy that is also being employed by Republican operatives in Washington who are compiling a political dossier on Ms. Gillibrand.

“She’s kind of attached to the hip of Pelosi, who is one of the most left-wing speakers in American history,” Mr. Nolan said.

Ms. Gillibrand scoffed at such criticism, which she said began within weeks of her taking office. She pointed to what she considered her accomplishments so far: voting to cut interest rates on federally backed college loans; supporting security initiatives recommended by the 9/11 Commission; providing $1 million in grants for sewage, water and road projects in her district.

“It’s political,” she concluded about the attacks. “It’s not about my performance or the good job I am doing.”

How far the Republican candidates themselves are willing to go in directly attacking Ms. Gillibrand is an open question. Many are clearly mindful of the fact that voters were turned off by the ugly tone of the race between Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Sweeney.

(In the final days of that contest, for example, Mr. Sweeney accused the Gillibrand campaign of being behind published reports that his wife placed a call to 911 to report that he had physically abused her. No charges resulted from the episode, which he called campaign propaganda. Her campaign denied Mr. Sweeney’s contention.)

“The voters of the 20th District have gone through a negative campaign in the past, and anyone who goes that way again will turn them off,” said Mr. Wager, the Bloomberg aide, who has been traveling the district meeting with party leaders and rank-and-file Republicans.

Mr. Treadwell, the former state Republican Party chairman, agreed. “I think people are tired of it,” he said.

Mr. Treadwell, who recently met with Republican leaders in Washington and sent letters to all 1,400 Republican committeemen in the 20th District, said he is focused on building support for his candidacy among Republicans — not attacking someone who has barely been in office.

“She’s just starting,” he said of Ms. Gillibrand. “We’ll have to see how her record develops.”

Through it all, Ms. Gillibrand has worked like a candidate who is in a tight race. She visits even the most politically unwelcoming regions of her district, trying to deliver constituent services and to make the case that she is staying above the political fray.

That was the case recently when she came here to Otsego County, a heavily Republican area that represented a tiny percentage of the overall vote in the previous election. As is her practice, she took along an aide to handle constituent needs, like helping to obtain Social Security benefits.

Tom Gale, the Republican town supervisor of Milford, said he was pleasantly surprised to see Ms. Gillibrand. “It’s good to see that kind of representation,” he said. “She actually took the time to come here even though the population here isn’t all that large.”