08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Upstate Senator That Wasn't

So Carolyn Maloney is making a go at Kirsten Gillibrand's Senate seat, despite the White House and (most importantly) Chuck Schumer drumming all other would-be contenders out of the race. Because Gillibrand's vulnerable, right? Relatively new to Congress, an upstater, conservative one day, liberal the next. Her poll numbers? So soft, they've got Rahm and Biden fighting her battles!

So will she lose? Nah, probably not.... The Democratic organization has lined up right behind her.... And for that, somewhere, Samuel S. Stratton is laughing.

Some, if any, will remember Stratton as the dean of the New York congressional delegation about two decades ago. But in the early 1960s, he and Ms. Gillibrand had a lot in common. In 1958, Stratton parlayed his position as the Democratic mayor of Schenectady to win a solidly Republican congressional district. His conservative voting record reelected him in 1960, but when the GOP-controlled legislature drew him into an even more Republican district for 1962, he took it as a sign to go statewide. And why not aim for the top? He sought the Democratic nomination to challenge Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

There was one problem: party leaders -- primarily based in New York City -- wanted Robert M. Morgenthau. The son of FDR's longtime Treasury Secretary, Morgenthau had a golden name in Democratic politics. Stratton, ever the fighter, decried this "bossism" all the way to defeat at the state Democratic Convention in Syracuse. He returned to his newly drawn district and toured it in an old station wagon, introducing himself to prospective constituents one person at a time. And, as Morgenthau was defeated in November '62, Stratton crushed his Republican opponent.

In 1964, Unsinkable Sam was a shoo-in for the U.S. Senate nomination. The party simply had no bench. Except for the office of comptroller, Democrats had gone ten years without a statewide win.... Nothing could stop Stratton now....

And then Robert Kennedy happened.

The Attorney General entered the race in August and, as a Johnny Apple column put it, his candidacy was like a "steamroller sitting on a steep hill. All they had to do was release the brake, because there was almost nothing standing in their way."... Well, he certainly looked like almost nothing. Stratton was flattened.

Coincidentally, RFK was the one who persuaded Bronx boss Charles Buckley to support Morgenthau two years prior, killing Stratton's chances in '62. Now Kennedy was doing it again and -- once again -- Stratton rejected the powerbrokers' decision and took it to the state Democratic Convention. In a nominating speech on Stratton's behalf, Long Island Congressman Otis G. Pike reminded the assembly of New York Democrats that in 1962, "the illustrious son of an illustrious father [got us] one of the most illustrious shellackings of our illustrious history." It had absolutely no effect on the delegate count. The Kennedy steamroller kept crushing on.

Stratton went back to the House, where he spent the next twenty-four years building his reputation as an unapologetic conservative Democrat. He was redistricted twice more but left Congress only at a time of his choosing, in 1989. No doubt he often wondered what might have been had Robert Kennedy not "decided he was a New Yorker."

Stratton's experience probably wouldn't have let him imagine that the Democratic powerbrokers would ever stick their necks out for a conservative upstate nobody. But he surely would have liked it.