Now that she’s won a second term in a Democratic Congress, Kirsten Gillibrand may be poised for greater things in the future, some political analysts say.
“I could see her potentially running for U.S. Senate,” said Larry Bulman, Saratoga County Democratic Committee chairman.
Gillibrand’s reputation as the moderate Democrat who represents upstate New York could make her an important player in the House of Representatives in the next two years, especially if the state Democratic delegation led by powerhouses Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Charles Schumer gains power under President-elect Barack Obama’s leadership.
“The New York delegation will become far more powerful in this Congress than it was at any time during George Bush’s presidency,” said Robert Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor.
“I think having that connection between Gillibrand and [Clinton and Schumer] is another big plus in her favor.”
Gillibrand, D-Greenport, blew away Republican challenger Alexander “Sandy” Treadwell on Tuesday night with 62 percent of the unofficial vote in a district that is more Republican than any other party.
Even her own camp was taken aback by the big margin of victory.
“We were really surprised by how well we did against almost $7 million,” said Gillibrand spokeswoman Rachel McEneny Spencer on Wednesday, referring to how much Treadwell raised for his campaign, mostly from his own bank account.
The district’s enrolled voters are 42 percent Republican, 26 percent Democrat, 25 percent unaffiliated and 7 percent in small parties.
Bulman hosted Gillibrand’s first house party in Saratoga Springs in 2005. Thirty-two people showed up, he recalled.
And Turner recalls a Gillibrand who wasn’t so polished before she ran in 2006.
“I saw her a year before her first election race,” he said. “She had a tough time answering questions; she wasn’t very smooth; she didn’t know the issues well.”
Late Tuesday, Gillibrand glowed after her victory speech, wading fearlessly into the crowd of media and well-wishers, rattling off her talking points and answering questions like the seasoned pro she now is.
As her handlers tried to steer her away from a throng of reporters toward TV crews going live on the air for the 11 p.m. news, Gillibrand spoke with passion about working in Washington right up until the last month before the election.
“It was a far richer experience for me. It’s not just all rhetoric. It’s actually making a difference,” Gillibrand said.
It’s that assertiveness and passion that voters like in a candidate, as well as Gillibrand’s status as the working mom of a newborn son, Turner said.
“Voters are more likely to know that Kirsten Gillibrand is a working mom with two young children than they are to know how she votes in Congress,” Turner said. “She’s likely to be seen as one of them.”
Saratoga County Democratic Chairman Larry Bulman said Gillibrand is well-known on the national political scene.
“The one thing I know is that people all over the country are very envious of who we have as a representative in Congress here,” Bulman said. “For her to have accomplished so much in just two years is just remarkable.”
So what’s next for Gillibrand?
“It’s really up to [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi to make the determination, but I suspect that they may view Ms. Gillibrand as a rising star within the party,” said Joseph Zimmerman, political science professor at the University at Albany.
Although Gillibrand is still too new to become chairwoman of a committee, she could get appointed to a more important committee than her current assignments, Zimmerman said.
But Siena College political science professor Leon Halpert said he doesn’t know whether Gillibrand wants to go for the big time.
“I think her family situation is such that she wouldn’t be in a situation to do that,” he said.
And besides, Gillibrand sometimes differs from her party’s leadership in an effort to appeal to moderate 20th District voters, which could make leaders less likely to consider her for a major post.
She’s also not unbeatable in her current office, Halpert said.
“It may very well be that she’s going to face very formidable Republican challengers,” he said.
If Gillibrand does have her eye on a higher office like the U.S. Senate, vice president or president, she’ll start building a statewide war chest soon, Zimmerman said.
Much of the $4.4 million Gillibrand raised came from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other groups that wanted to see the Democrat keep her seat against the well-funded challenger. If she runs again in 2010, Gillibrand likely won’t get that much money because she’ll be a more entrenched incumbent and a tougher candidate to beat, Zimmerman said.
Turner agreed that as long as Gillibrand keeps voting moderately and serving her constituents, she will be tough to beat in the future in this district.
“I think that any would-be Republican challenger and their potential funders are going to think twice about taking her on,” he said.
“There are going to be other seats elsewhere where you can invest that money where you are more likely to see a Republican elected.”