The High Stakes of New York’s Low Drama Senate Race

Schenectady, NY - - Sunday October 30, 2016 United States Senator of New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer debated the Republican Party of New York’s nominee for United State Senator of New York, Wendy E. Long at the Nott Memorial at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

By Erin Wade
BU News Service

Though Massachusetts is not currently enmeshed in a battle for any U.S. Senate seats, there are a few Senate battles being waged in the Northeast, and one is in New York state, where the two candidates up for that seat engaged in a spirited debate at Union College last Sunday night.

But the race is not competitive. FiveThirtyEight gives Democratic incumbent Sen. Charles Schumer, who could potentially become the Senate majority leader if the Democrats won the Senate, better than a 99.9 percent chance of keeping his seat.

So, why debate at all?

Brad Hays and Clifford Brown, professors of political science at Union College, cited several reasons Schumer would agree to debate Republican challenger Wendy Long.

 “These debates are often set up long before we know what the polling on the race forecasts for the election’s outcome,” Hays said in an email. “A candidate needs to agree to the debate in case the race is tight and you need the opportunity to help your prospects.”

Debating Long was also an opportunity for Schumer to showcase his experience in politics.

“Schumer has been campaigning and debating for a long time so it is a chance to shine,” Hays said.

Hays said that, in addition to advance planning and showcasing experience, it’s just a “norm to debate your opponent.”

“Deviation from the norm raises questions about how serious a candidate is and their respect for the people as the ultimate decision-maker as to who will represent them,” Hays said.

Brown also noted that Schumer debating Long is “good politics” in upstate New York, a region where many counties voted Republican in the 2012 presidential election but only two counties went red in the 2012 Senate race between Long and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Long lost to Gillibrand by a margin of 26.7 percent to 71.9 percent, and she is polling at similar numbers against Schumer.

Following a question from moderator Liz Benjamin about her 2012 loss during last Sunday’s debate, Long said to the press pool that her lack of name recognition and support in New York “comes down to money,” referring to the large gap in contributions between Schumer and Long’s campaigns.

But Long was not the only one who faced some tough questions. Errol Louis, the debate’s second moderator, asked Schumer if he would serve as a “rubber stamp for Clinton” if re-elected or given the position of Senate majority leader.

“Gridlock does nobody any good,” Schumer said. “If I become majority leader, I’ve already talked to many of my Republican colleagues. I want to work with them to get things done.”

Hays and Brown both expect Schumer to be Senate majority leader if Democrats win a majority in the Senate.

“If the Democrats take the Senate, the chances are excellent that Schumer will be the majority leader — and minority leader if they don’t,” Brown said.

Hays noted that when Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada and Senate party leader, announced his retirement, he endorsed Schumer over Reid’s current number two, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.

“This carries significant weight in the Democratic caucus, so much so that Durbin endorsed Schumer, too, rather than run for majority leader himself,” Hays said.

The Democratic caucus in the Senate chooses a majority or minority leader for its party. In the event of a 50-50 split in the Senate between Republican and Democratic senators, the vice president serves as the tiebreaker.

“If the Senate is tied and Clinton wins, the Democrats will control the machinery of the Senate with the vice president’s tie-breaking vote, and [Schumer] will be majority leader,” Brown said.

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