She Is Kirsten, Hear Her Roar: Gillibrand The Unstoppable

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Who is the most powerful woman in American politics? Is it Nancy Pelosi, who just pushed landmark health care reform through a reticent Congress? Is it Michelle Obama, whose stratospheric approval ratings make her the envy of everyone in the political universe?

No, it’s neither. The most powerful woman of all, or so it seems, is the junior senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand (D). Think about it: Who else could be associated with David Paterson and not be politically radioactive? Who else could scare off challenger after challenger from both sides without spending a dime?

Meet Kirsten Gillibrand, who apparently can’t be stopped by man nor woman nor even Rudy Giuliani.Before we discuss where Gillibrand is now, we need to take a look at where she came from. Back in the heady days of January 2009, Gillibrand, then a conservative Democratic Representative, knocked off a field of competitors that briefly included a Kennedy to win Paterson’s favor and the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton when she became Secretary of State.

Here’s what the New York Times wrote about the appointment at the time:

Ms. Gillibrand’s selection was a careful political calculation by the governor, who will run for his second term as governor in 2010, when Ms. Gillibrand will also be on the ballot. The choice reflects Mr. Paterson’s thinking that his selection should be someone who can help him attract key demographics — in Ms. Gillibrand’s case upstate New Yorkers and women.

So, to summarize: Gillibrand got the job he has now based on the strategic mind of a man who has a 20% approval rating and is set to leave office in shame.

In fact, Gillibrand was threatened with her first Democratic primary opponent before she even got the job — another woman on Paterson’s shortlist, gun-control advocate Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D), said she’d take Gillibrand on if the conservative pro-gun upstate Representative was chosen of the Senate seat. But, in a scene that would replay itself a many times over the coming months, McCarthy dropped the idea in June.

Gillibrand had claimed her first victim of many more to follow. Next came Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D), who dropped out of the race in the summer after a, well, unfortunate choice of words soured her to the Democratic base.

We all know what happened to the other Democrat to mount a serious challenge to Gillibrand — Harold Ford, Jr. was sent away licking his woulds (presumably in a chauffeured limo) after daring to take on the unstoppable Gillibrand. Ford went everywhere and talked to everyone he could as he prepared to take her on. Gillibrand’s campaign to destroy him was fought mostly through Twitter.

But Gillibrand doesn’t just strike fear in the heart of Democrats — Republicans can’t seem to gather up the courage to take her on either. So far on the GOP side Gillbrand has scared away a billionaire media mogul, America’s Mayor, a former Governor, Mike Bloomberg’s girlfriend, a congressman who’s not afraid of making a fool of himself and a man who’s so good on the stump President Bush tapped him to sell the Iraq War.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few Republicans out there still willing to take the plunge. But as The Hotline reports, the few left standing are not exactly the stuff campaign strategist dreams are made of:

Ex-Port Authority Commis. Bruce Blakeman (R) has already confirmed his bid. Ex-Rep. Joe DioGuardi (R) is set to officially announce his candidacy 3/16. And ex-Giuliani aide/economist David Malpass (R) is supposedly in.

So what makes Gillibrand so unstoppable? It’s certainly not her poll numbers. New Yorkers don’t appear to be that excited about Gillibrand. A recent Marist poll showed that just 24% of voters would call her job performance “good or excellent.” Thirty-eight percent said her time in office has been just “fair.”

Close to a quarter said they didn’t know enough about Gillibrand to form an opinion one way or the other. (Other polls have shown that Gillibrand could be defeated, too. The standing TPM Poll Average of a Gillbrand match up with Republican ex-Gov. George Pataki shows the Pataki ahead by a margin of 46.4-40.5. Pataki is one of the Republicans who says he won’t run, however.)

But Gillibrand has worked hard to build a statewide persona, abandoning some of the conservative views that earned her a seat in the House from an upstate district. She may have earned herself a second term simply by not being the controversial figure many in the Democratic party thought she would be. By solidifying the Democratic base behind her, Gillibrand has made it tough for any Republican to get any leverage — she’s too much of a centrist to get challenged by someone like a Mort Zuckerman on the Republican side and she’s too willing to talk with her state’s sizable progressive community to get attacked from the left.

Correction: This post mistakenly stated Dan Senor was a veteran of the Marine Corps. The error has been corrected.