ALBANY - The three Republicans running in a primary to take on Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are meeting voters around New York, rounding up endorsements and lobbing critiques at the incumbent.
But with primary day looming June 26, are people paying attention?
Polls show most voters still don't know much about attorney Wendy Long, Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos and U.S. Rep. Bob Turner. Low turnout is expected on primary day for an election among candidates still trying to build name recognition.
From left, Wendy Long, George Maragos and Bob Turner are the three Republicans running for a U.S. Senate seat from New York.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
(Enterprise file photo)
"There will be a primary and somebody will win it ... and all the Republicans who are now all over the lot will get together," said Quinnipiac University poll director Maurice Carroll. "But at this stage of the game, it's still Gillibrand and three names."
A Quinnipiac poll this week found more than three-quarters of respondents haven't heard enough about the three Republicans to form an opinion. In head-to-head matchups, Gillibrand was favored over each of the three by more than 2 to 1. Turner, with 26 percent support, was 2 percentage points better than Long and Maragos.
The poll reinforces the widespread view that Gillibrand is set to cruise to re-election, though Republicans argue that the three-year incumbent's support is softer than it appears.
"I think this will be an uphill fight," Turner said, "but one that is not only worth fighting, but one that we can actually win."
Turner enjoyed a burst of national publicity last fall when the former television executive won his seat in Queens and Brooklyn to replace scandal-tarred Democrat Anthony Weiner; that district is being eliminated next year under redistricting. Maragos stresses his story as an immigrant who built a successful financial technology business before his upset win for county comptroller in 2009. Long, who has never held elected office, worked in the U.S. Senate, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and has done political advocacy for conservative judges.
They are fighting for attention in a sprawling state where primary turnouts can be notoriously low - just under 7 percent of Republicans voted in last month's presidential primary. Turnout could be even more sparse this time. Not only are the candidates little known, but the primary was also moved to a summer Tuesday from its traditional spot in early September.
Turner said he was told to expect "abysmal" turnout.
"It's going to be about 200,000 voters," he said, "and every one of them is going to be very important."
Look for the campaigns to focus on places in New York with the most Republicans: Long Island, New York City's northern suburbs, the outer boroughs, and the Buffalo and Rochester areas. A promising vein of primary voters also is expected in two congressional districts with turnout-boosting House primaries, in Westchester County and the Buffalo area.
With so few voters expected, the campaigns stressed the importance of reaching out to motivated Republicans. Long, who also has the Conservative line, said she is doing that across the state.
"My strategy is all the above, and it's basically to get in front of the really heart of the party - the activists, the really hard-core Republicans who are the loyal primary voters and the tea party folks," she said.
Maragos struck a similar note.
"We've built a statewide grassroots organization that's going to help us get out the vote," Maragos said.
Turner on Thursday announced his first TV spot.
For months, the candidates have campaigned on themes to cheer Republicans: Calls for less government and lower taxes have been mixed with attacks on Gillibrand as an ultra-liberal flip-flopper.
After June 26, one of the three candidates who have spent months stressing their conservative credentials will have to compete in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.
Gillibrand also had $9.1 million in her campaign account as of the last required filing in April. That compares with roughly $1 million for Maragos, who is funding his own campaign. Turner had $97,516 and Long $68,968.
A competitive statewide race in New York can run more than $20 million, another reason analysts say a far larger challenge awaits Gillibrand's opponent.
"There just nothing out there in the winds to suggest that any of them has a chance to come close," said Lawrence Levy, a political commentator and dean of Hofstra University's National Center on Suburban Studies. "The entire Democratic brand would have to be crashing and burning because of some enormous scandal or economic depression that suddenly emerged."