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Clinton’s Appointment Triggers Game of Electoral Chairs in New York

With yesterday’s confirmation that Hillary Clinton will leave her senate seat to become the next Secretary of State, New Yorkers now find themselves in the unusual position of having both their senate seats and their governor up for re-election in 2010. In addition, residents of New York City will have a mayoral election in 2009.

The coincidence of so many seats being up for election at once could have implications for the appointment that current governor David Paterson chooses to make for Clinton’s junior senate seat. In particular, Clinton’s Class 1 senate seat might be less vulnerable than it ordinarily might be to either a primary or a general election challenge because of the presence of the gubernatorial race. This is because, between the gubernatorial race and the Class 1 senate seat, the gubernatorial race is probably the more desirable position. For one thing, in a large-population state like New York, being the governor is probably a higher prestige and more powerful position than being a US Senator — this is particularly so for Republican candidates, who would probably have to serve in the Senate as members of the minority party. For another, Clinton’s seat is subject to re-election again in 2012, which means that the winner of the seat is guaranteed only a two-year term.

Thus, if Paterson wanted to appoint a relatively green candidate to the Senate with relatively low statewide name recognition — say a minority like NY-12’s Nydia Velázquez or Buffalo mayor Byron Brown — this might be a good opportunity to do so, as the governor’s race might protect them from facing some of the strongest Republican or Democratic opposition. Velázquez or Brown — both capable politicians — would then have built up experience, fundraising networks and the like for a potentially more vigorous challenge in 2012.

On the other hand, Paterson is not exactly a neutral party in all of this, as he himself intends to run for re-election in 2010. The Democratic candidate he has most to fear is Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who is the plurality choice to fill Clinton’s senate seat and who could very easily mount a primary challenge against Paterson should he not be appointed to the Senate. Although Paterson and Cuomo are friendly, the New York Times has suggested that Cuomo is mounting a stealth PR campaign for the senate seat, and would appear to be very much interested in it.

Early polls show Paterson leading Cuomo among Democratic primary voters in the governor’s race; on the other hand, Paterson’s approval ratings are tepid, and the situation in New York can be considered volatile because of the evolving implications of the financial crisis in the state.

Complicating matters further is the presence of the New York City mayoral race, which goes up for election again next year. Michael Bloomberg somewhat controversially succeeded in getting the City Council to reverse the city’s term limits law, allowing him to run for a third term, a decision which is now subject to a legal challenge. Should the legal challenge prevail, should Bloomberg decide that he doesn’t want to run for a third term after all, or should Bloomberg run for mayor and be defeated, he too could become a candidate for either the Senate or the governorship; polls show he and Paterson running about even for the latter position.

Our uninformed guess is that Paterson will see the writing on the wall and decide to appoint Cuomo. If Cuomo is a free agent and elects to run for governor, he is a double-edged threat to Paterson. Not only might Cuomo succeed in primarying Paterson out, but even if he were to fail, the prospect of a bloody and expensive primary battle might encourage Rudy Giuliani and possibly Bloomberg to enter the governor’s race, considerably complicating Paterson’s task in November.

The one person who would appear to be completely safe in all of this is Chuck Schumer, whose Class 3 senate seat will also be up for re-election in 2010. Credible opponents would be insane to challenge Schumer, whose approval ratings are high and who is among the top fundraisers in the chamber, when they could instead take a whack at either the quasi-incumbent Paterson or whichever quasi-incumbent Paterson appoints to fill the Clinton seat.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.