Race Is On for Hillary Clinton's Senate Seat

Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi is a front-runner for the Clinton seat -- he has a Long Island constituency and is well connected in the governor's office.
Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi is a front-runner for the Clinton seat -- he has a Long Island constituency and is well connected in the governor's office. (Karen Wiles Stabile - Newsday Staff)
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By Chris Cillizza And Shailagh Murray
Monday, November 24, 2008

Now that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is headed to the State Department (right?), the race for her seat begins in earnest.

Senate seats in New York are a precious commodity with a powerful lineage -- Clinton, Robert F. Kennedy, etc. -- so every ambitious politician in the Empire State (literally) is being mentioned.

Ultimately, the choice lies with just one man -- Democratic Gov. David Paterson, who will fill the seat until a 2010 special election for the remaining two years of Clinton's term.

So, who's the front-runner? Here are the Fix's odds, based on a series of conversations with New York political sharps:

3-1: Thomas Suozzi. Suozzi is known nationally (to the extent he is known at all) as the guy who ran a quixotic primary challenge against soon-to-be-governor Eliot L. Spitzer (D) in 2006. With two years of hindsight, however, Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, looks better and better. Like that of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, Suozzi's geographic base (Long Island) is appealing for Democrats looking for a statewide winner, and Bill Cunningham, the top political aide to Paterson, is also extremely close to Suozzi.

5-1: Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand, who won an open Upstate seat in 2006, is a political dynamo who received the most votes of any New York incumbent (177,667) earlier this month. Gillibrand's geographic positioning, coupled with her fundraising prowess ($4.6 million raised in the past two years) and the idea of replacing Clinton with another woman, makes her a top prospect.

8-1: Rep. Nita M. Lowey. It's no secret that Lowey would like to be in the Senate. She appeared headed that way eight years ago until Clinton decided she wanted to run and Lowey stepped aside. But at this point there are doubts that Lowey is really interested, at 71 years of age and with significant seniority in the House, and, even if so, whether she would be the long-term choice.

12-1: State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo, the son of the former New York governor, is the biggest name (outside of the Kennedys) in the potential field. And, with Paterson on course to run for a full term in 2010, the Senate could be a nice landing spot for Cuomo. And yet, few party insiders take the prospect of a Sen. Cuomo seriously.

20-1: Reps. Steve Israel and Brian Higgins. Israel, from Long Island, and Higgins, from western New York, are well regarded by the state's political establishment. Neither man, however, brings the "star power" that some New Yorkers expect out of their senators.

30-1: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The idea of naming Kennedy to the same seat his father once held has sentimental appeal for many in the New York Democratic Party. Kennedy is still in the mix for a post in President-elect Barack Obama's administration -- head of the Environmental Protection Agency -- and so any Senate speculation is on hold. Some Democrats also harbor electability concerns about Kennedy, believing he is far too liberal to be elected statewide.

100-1: Caroline Kennedy. The most interest Kennedy has ever shown in politics surfaced with her endorsement of Obama this year and her subsquent service as a vice presidential vetter. This one ain't happening.

The Same Old Senate

At least nine Senate seats will change hands in January, including four held by lawmakers who are more than 70 years old. All have younger, in some cases much younger, replacements. That should send the Senate's average age of 63 rocketing downward, right?

After all, 85-year-old Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) lost to Mark Begich, 46. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), 72, will be replaced by Kay Hagan, 57. Sens. John Warner (R-Va.), 81, and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), 76, who retired after long careers, are turning their seats over, respectively, to Mark Warner, 53, and Tom Udall, 60.

On the other hand, Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), at 44, is one of the Senate's youngest members, and he lost to 61-year-old Jeanne Shaheen. The other newcomers are more or less the same age as their predecessors. And the chamber still has 22 members over age 70, including 91-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia.

So it turns out the new, younger crop doesn't change the overall picture much at all. In the upcoming 111th Congress, the average age of senators will drop by exactly one year, to 62.

Players

Rob Jesmer is one of the few Republican operatives who emerged largely unscathed from the 2008 election. Jesmer, who served briefly as John McCain's political director over the summer, wound up in Texas managing Sen. John Cornyn's reelection campaign. Cornyn was reelected to a second term with 55 percent of the vote and then, last week, was chosen by his peers as the next chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. His first hire? Jesmer as executive director -- a post from which he will be charged with rebuilding a party that has lost 13 Senate seats in the last two elections.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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