Correction: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand last won reelection in 2018. A previous version of this article included incorrect information.
Progressives are looking at New York as a way to make the Senate map more left-wing.
They see Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who’s up for reelection in 2024, as a tempting primary target in a state that sent several “squad” members to the House and which some Democrats concede is in need of a party rebranding.
On the surface, the Empire State seems ripe for an insurgent win. New York progressives in urban areas have been successful in recent years at ousting longtime establishment House Democrats, including former Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), making it part of a mecca for grassroots activity, candidate recruitment and liberal energy.
But Gillibrand’s deep roots could prove hard to penetrate, challenging the assumption that a hypothetical primary rival would pose an immediate threat.
“I would be shocked if it came to pass for Sen. Gillibrand,” said Jon Reinish, a former aide to the senator. “She has a really progressive voting record and on the issues that she’s best known for, they’re beloved by the Democratic base.”
Among the state’s high-profile talent, none has garnered more attention than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)
The progressive congresswoman, who ousted Crowley in 2018, seems poised to rise from the House to the Senate if she wants to. Some have even speculated that she could run for the White House if President Biden decided not to seek a second term.
While that rumor swirled for a little while, much of the more serious speculation centered around whether she would challenge Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 2022 and instigate what would be a power clash of prominent Democrats from different sides of the party’s spectrum.
As November came and went, however, she turned that down, instead sailing to reelection to a third House term and causing Democrats to ask about her plans for 2024.
“People all over want her to run — she is like our generation’s JFK,” said Ryan Adams, a progressive strategist who also worked with New York-based “squad” member Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).
Adams suggested the real question is which cycle she will choose to run in, not whether she has the desire to.
“Possible, yes, very,” he said about the idea that she may run for the Senate. “To me, it almost feels inevitable.”
But in politics, timing is everything.
“I don’t know about this cycle,” Adams said. “How best could her political capital be used in the next two years? What is she trying to get done in Congress? Will a big loud fight pull resources from other places that will need it in 2024?”
Gillibrand, on the other hand, is all in. First elected to the House in 2006, defeating three-term GOP Rep. John Sweeney in the state’s 20th Congressional District, she has moved relatively quickly up the electoral ladder, often tweaking her platforms and positions to address voters’ changing needs.
“She then represented a conservative, rural, white, sprawling upstate district,” Reinish said about her time in the House. “She very quickly pivoted to representing the entire state, so those are many different constituencies.”
Gillibrand, who took over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, won her reelection campaign in 2018. She made a name in Congress running on a pro-woman platform, championing some of the biggest fights around reforms for handling sexual assault in the military and as a staunch advocate of paid family leave.
Last month, she formally stated she would run again in 2024, sending out an email fundraising blast alerting supporters of her intention. Almost immediately, there were questions in some Democratic circles about whether Gillibrand would face a challenger.
Publicly, she is keeping her powder dry. She told local station News12 in Westchester, “I don’t believe I will have a primary.”
While many believe Ocasio-Cortez would be the most likely — and certainly biggest ticket name — to mount a possible challenge from the left, others could also emerge as dark horse contenders.
Former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) was considered one of progressives’ top rising stars during his brief time in Congress. While in office, the young, Black and openly gay lawmaker often pushed the administration in front of the national spotlight, particularly around voting rights. Dealt an unfortunate hand when his district was redrawn in the gerrymandering process, he’s now a CNN commentator and could decide to primary Gillibrand as a Hail Mary pass at another term in office.
Other Democrats have laid to rest speculation they will challenge her. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) told The New York Times emphatically last week that he was not considering a primary against Gillibrand. Additionally, the publication reported that he recently gave $10,000 to her reelection campaign.
“I don’t think there is a lot of appetite to primary the senator,” said Camille Rivera, a New York-based Democratic strategist who’s worked with a variety of progressives. “She may not be totally left-left, but she fights for the issues that really matter.”
In the Senate, Gillibrand has worked to advance Biden’s agenda after her brief stint competing against him for the presidential nomination in 2020. She failed to catch on nationally but managed to amass smaller pockets of loyal supporters in key early voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa.
While statewide Democrats tend to have a natural advantage given its blue lean, former Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-N.Y.) better-than-expected performance against Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) in last year’s gubernatorial race put Democrats on notice. Hochul defeated Zeldin by roughly 6 points.
As the unofficial campaign season gets underway, rumblings around a potential match-up between Gillibrand and Zeldin have been growing.
“He may not be victorious but he can definitely be formidable,” Rivera said. “His numbers were way too close for comfort.”
“Everything is on the table,” she said.