In renouncing his intention to challenge Senator Gillibrand next year, Rep. Peter King makes a telling twofold confession. The more predictable part of it is his admission that he wouldn't be able to match Gillibrand's presumptive (and perhaps now pre-emptive) fundraising advantage. The more interesting part is why. King confesses that Gillibrand is an insufficiently threatening figure. She "generates neither strong support nor opposition." Allegedly operating "under the radar," Hillary Clinton's successor does not provoke the anxieties or hatreds that King now admits to be necessary for fundraising among Republicans. If they can't be goaded into fear or hatred of a Democrat, King implicitly concedes, a Republican campaign in a red state is hopeless. He regrets Gov. Paterson's failure to tap Caroline Kennedy for the Senate seat, explaining that a Kennedy would have been provocative enough to make his fundraising work much easier.
Hope is not completely lost for Republicans, since former Gov. Pataki is reportedly contemplating a challenge. Nor is it lost for more progressive Democrats, since despite the retreat of Rep. Maloney Gillibrand still faces at least one announced challenger for the party nomination. But King's own admission of hopelessness is a kind of bankruptcy filing for Republicans, at least in New York State. Taking money out of the equation, Gillibrand remains a liberal (albeit a borderline "Blue Dog") and King is a conservative. Given the present ideological antipathy, the difference alone would seem to necessitate a challenge, whatever the cost and whatever the chance for success. But King has said, in effect, that there is no point to a Republican challenging a Democrat in the Empire State unless people can be terrified or infuriated into making campaign donations. The principle of the thing is secondary, though King may be adopting a literal "Let George Do It" approach to the problem. If this is the state of the opposition in this state, what kind of opposition is it, really? The object of competitive elections is to give voters people to choose from, not to raise money from paranoids. If there is genuine opposition to Gillibrand, money should be no object for it, and fear should not be a factor. Should Pataki also demur from the challenge, the resulting vacuum should welcome principled opposition from other parties, whether I like them or not. Fearless opposition in every sense of the adjective is essential to democratic republicanism. If Republicans don't want to play if they don't think they can win, they ought to step aside in favor of someone who gives a damn.