Primary color: Rangel unscathed, Paladino unleashed, Gillibrand untested

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WE'LL NEVER KNOW WHAT WOULD have happened if Charlie Rangel had drawn a serious primary challenger.

The outcome of Tuesday night’s primary, the twenty-first time Rangel has been judged by his Harlem-based House district’s Democratic voters, wasn’t a surprise: For the twenty-first time, Rangel won his party’s nomination. The margin was wide—he more than doubled his nearest challenger’s tally—and he is now a shoo-in for the general election.

But the results also contained a reminder that it didn’t have to be this way, because even though Rangel crushed Adam Clayton Powell IV by 27 points, his total share of the vote barely cracked 50 percent (50.5 percent, to be exact). In other words, almost as many Democratic voters in the 15th District voted for someone other than Rangel as voted for him, something that had never happened before.

It was the scattered nature of the opposition and the formidable baggage of his chief rival that saved the 80-year-old Rangel in what may have been his final primary campaign.

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Powell, the son of the ethically tarnished congressman Rangel unseated to claim the seat back in 1970, was once a rising star in Harlem politics. But his ill-advised challenge to Rangel back in 1994, a contest in which Powell was thumped by a two-to-one margin, stunted his growth. And the years between that campaign and this one were littered with unfavorable and even ugly headlines about Powell’s personal conduct, professional work habits, and campaign spending practices.

When Powell stepped back in the ring this year, he was betting that his own liabilities would be lost in the media uproar over Rangel’s ethical conduct. Instead, they helped attract other candidates to the race, each of them sensing Rangel’s vulnerability and Powell’s inability to fully capitalize on it. Individually, Vincent Morgan, Joyce Johnson, Ruben Vargas and Jonathan Tasini were incapable of breaking through. But collectively, they divided the anti-Rangel vote, making it impossible for Powell to get the clean shot at Rangel on which his whole strategy depended. When the New York Times, which seemed to make taking down Rangel one of its editorial missions these past two years, endorsed Johnson in the primary instead of Powell, it illustrated perfectly why Rangel was sitting so pretty.

Understandably, Rangel enjoyed himself on Tuesday night. In the last year, he’s lost the prized Ways and Means chairmanship he’d spent more than a decade dreaming of and watched as his name and face have become a staple of angry Republican attacks on the national Democratic Party. When he tried to defend himself on the House floor last month, in a rambling and defiant 38-minute speech that became an instant YouTube sensation, he was accused by the press (and plenty of Democrats) of reckless self-indulgence: How dare he remind Americans that he’s still in Congress! This victory will let him claim vindication. After everything he’s been through, he went back to his district’s voters—the people who know him best—and won a majority.

Realistically, though, it’s all downhill from here for Rangel, at least as far as his congressional career is concerned. The Ways and Means gavel is gone forever, as is the idea that he’ll ever lead a significant committee again. And his party is likely to lose control of the House this November anyway. When he’s sworn in next January, Rangel will be a backbencher, and not a particularly powerful one. Back in 2006, Rangel said he was ready to retire if his party didn’t win back the House that fall. He’d been waiting 12 years for the chance to lead Ways and Means and he was growing impatient. Here’s guessing he’ll be even more restless in the 112th Congress.

 

CARL PALADINO WILL SURELY MAKE this fall’s gubernatorial race a lot more fun than it would have been with Rick Lazio. But he won’t necessarily make it much more competitive.

Watching the G.O.P. primary results stream in on Tuesday night, it was tempting to wonder if Paladino’s shockingly dominant victory—he crushed Lazio by a nearly two-to-one spread—signaled that the Buffalo developer enjoys a deeper and broader connection with the electorate than we’ve assumed; that he might just be enough of a wild card to turn the general election, which has been seen all year as a coronation for Andrew Cuomo, into a real race.

But then reality set in: it was a G.O.P. primary in New York, meaning that the electorate was comprised only of registered Republicans. No Democrats, no independents, no moderate suburbanites who tend to favor the G.O.P. but who don’t like the idea of formally registering with one party. Just registered Republicans, the folks who stuck with the party even after its awful, morale-killing failures of 2006 and 2008.

And when you understand that, Paladino’s success on Tuesday shouldn't be that shocking at all. It's the logical extension of a national phenomenon that’s been evident all year: the revolt by a resurgent G.O.P. base against the establishment it blames for the debacles of ’06 and ’08. This is the story of the Tea Party, which had already claimed big-name G.O.P. scalps in Utah, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, and Alaska before Tuesday night.

Paladino, a gruff, blunt and unpolished product of the Tea Party movement, always had the potential to rally the G.O.P. base. That the state Republicans tried to keep him off the primary ballot and that his chief opponent was a stale-seeming former congressman only enhanced his anti-establishment image. And the fact that the media paid so much attention to the report that he forwarded a series of off-color emails, including one that showed a picture of an African tribesman with the caption “Obama inauguration rehearsal,” seems only to have bolstered Paladino’s bond with the Tea Party base. How many of them had seen and chuckled at similar emails before—and resented the implication that this somehow made them racists?

As the primary neared and voters began paying more attention, the Paladino-Lazio polls tightened. But it was clear that the momentum was all on one side. How could a guy like Carl Paladino not win a closed Republican primary against a guy like Rick Lazio in 2010?

The flip side to the Tea Party’s success in Republican primaries this year is that general election universes tend to be bigger and broader. In some states, the difference isn’t that vast. So, for instance, Republicans probably won’t pay a price in November for nominating Ron Paul’s kid for the Senate in Kentucky, a very red, Obama-resistant state. But in other states, like New York, the difference is considerable.

As the G.O.P. nominee, Paladino will now attract a level of attention, from the press and from Democrats, that has previously eluded him. Voters who haven’t yet heard about his email habits now will, over and over, just as they will be exposed to his extensive financial ties to the Albany system he claims to abhor. When the media scrutinized Paladino in the primary, it helped him; the Tea Party base saw itself in him, and took the scrutiny personally. But with the general election audience, it will have a more conventional effect and simply turn people off.

Moreover, Cuomo has worked hard to establish anti-Albany credentials of his own, championing a reform program that much of the state’s Democratic establishment abhors. And he brings enormous popularity—a job approval rating that hovers around 70 percent—to the contest. Swing voters who are disappointed with the Democratic Party may give Paladino a look, and then most of them will move on.

It will be a fun show to watch, even if we already know the ending.

 

OFFICIALLY, KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND WON TUESDAY'S DEMOCRATIC Senate primary by a 76-24 percent margin over Gail Goode. But actually, she won it a year ago, when one by one, every Democrat who could have given her a run for her money came under pressure to quit and folded.

You remember how it went. As soon as David Paterson appointed her to the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand was pronounced unacceptable by Carolyn McCarthy, who was offended by the new senator’s past gun control opposition. McCarthy said she’d use the issue to run against her in the primary. But Gillibrand, no longer representing a right-leaning upstate House district, quickly got religion on the issue and McCarthy decided it wasn’t worth risking her safe House seat for an iffy statewide primary fight.

Then there was Steve Israel, the ambitious Long Island congressman, who had embarked on his own lonely “listening tour” while angling to win the appointment that ultimately went to Gillibrand. He geared up to run in the spring of 2009—until the White House muscled him out.

The story was similar for Scott Stringer, the equally ambitious Manhattan borough president. Taking a shot at Gillibrand wouldn’t have required to give up his office, and even if he lost, it would have given him valuable name recognition for the future. But he backed out too, citing the Obama White House’s wishes.

Carolyn Maloney, the longtime Upper East Side congresswoman, came closer to pulling the trigger. Badly disappointed that Paterson had appointed Gillibrand over her, Maloney went so far as to hire a consultant, Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s one-time hand. But reality soon interfered. Sure, Maloney wanted to be in the Senate, but she liked being in the House, especially given her seniority on the Financial Services committee. With the White House, Chuck Schumer and the Democratic establishment behind Gillibrand, the risk of running for the Senate was too steep. So she backed out.

That was the end of last summer, and at that point Gillibrand seemed home free, at least in terms of a primary challenge.

But November brought a new name into the mix: Bill Thompson, the New York city comptroller who came within five points of dethroning Michael Bloomberg in that month’s mayoral election. The result prompted the media, which had dismissed and ridiculed Thompson throughout the campaign, to reassess him. He was, they decided, much more popular than they’d realized: Maybe he’d use that popularity to take on Gillibrand. Thompson, enjoying his newfound respect, strung things out for a while before—surprise, surprise—taking a pass.

Which is when things just got silly, thanks to the decision of Harold Ford, the D.C.-raised, Michigan- and Pennsylvania-educated former Tennessee congressman and Senate candidate, to announce that he was now a New Yorker and that he was close to jumping into the race. This produced several of the funniest weeks in recent political memory, with Ford bragging about his pedicures, helicopter adventures and Wall Street friends. He finally wised up and backed down, and Gillibrand was home free.

Gillibrand’s good fortune, of course, had a lot to do with Schumer’s decision to take her under his wing, a move that shut off important political and financial avenues to would-be challenger. Good thing for her that he did. Her poll numbers have never really taken off and the political climate, even in New York, is unusually favorable to the G.O.P. this year. And yet her Republican opponent will be a 70-year-old former two-term congressman from Westchester was voted out of office in 1988 (and then waged three increasingly futile bids to win back his seat). No one more credible wanted the nomination.

There's no question that Gillibrand has benefited from some fantastically good breaks. The question is what, exactly, she has done to deserve it.