One of the toughest assignments in U.S. politics this year might be dethroning Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.
Yet two unknown Republicans -- Jay Townsend and Gary Berntsen -- are battling each other in a rare Republican primary for the right to challenge the powerful incumbent. Townsend -- a veteran political consultant from the lower Hudson Valley, and Berntsen -- a Long Islander and former CIA station chief in Afghanistan -- have been stumping through Western New York the past few days.
Both acknowledge Schumer has held the office since 1999, and is almost universally recognized. They know he holds the third-highest post in the Senate hierarchy -- and perhaps most importantly -- counts almost $22 million in his campaign account with the promise of more to come.
>Railing against debt
But both also are committed to "exposing" Schumer as a key to implementing President Obama's agenda.
Townsend, 56, has over the years managed 300 campaigns for local, state and national politicians in 25 states. He has worked for Democrats like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Birch Bayh, and now wants to translate his campaign experience into his own effort.
"To the extent I can, I want to stop the Obama agenda by defeating Chuck Schumer," is how Townsend summarizes his campaign.
An Indiana native and Purdue University graduate, Townsend says Schumer has lost touch with his own constituents by advancing Obama causes like expanded health care, cap and trade environmental legislation, and the stimulus bill that he says only adds to a burgeoning debt.
Indeed, like Republicans lining up to challenge New York's other Democratic incumbent -- Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand -- he cites debt as one of the most pressing problems facing the nation. And while its core lies in economics, mounting debt also presents strategic problems to Townsend.
Because China now holds so much U.S. debt, he says the nation's military capabilities may soon prove unaffordable.
"China is coming. It's now developing a navy that in 20 years will challenge our dominance of the seas," he said. "If we have to devalue our currency and create debt our kids can't pay, we will lose our military superiority."
And from a purely economic standpoint, he sees nothing good in the deficits created by the stimulus and other Obama programs.
"The fact of the matter is they could jack up federal taxes into the stratosphere and still not have enough to pay for what they've spent or borrowed," Townsend said.
But Townsend also claims Schumer's desire to be Senate majority leader compromises his position in New York. Schumer supports Obama legislation like health care, Townsend said, even though Gov. David A. Paterson and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg rail against the new costs it imposes on the state.
"He wants to be majority leader, and that's why he has traded away the interests of New York to curry favor with fellow senators," Townsend said.
Berntsen, meanwhile, is new to any limelight -- political or otherwise -- after a long career in the CIA shadows. He has worked around the globe and just wrote a book about his experiences and policy suggestions gained from his time in Afghanistan.
At 52, he acknowledges he is perceived as a "national security" kind of candidate due to his international experience, fluency in Spanish and Farsi, and his days as a covert operative. He wonders why the U.S. has committed so many troops and resources to Afghanistan, where he says the Army maintains the "longest fuel supply chain in history," and marvels at what he says is a cost of $1 million per day per soldier.
But he, too, mostly bases his campaign on the growing national debt and the excessive spending he said marks the Democratic administration and Democratic Congress.
"I would cut everything but Social Security, Medicare and the Veterans Administration," he said. "The Democrats and Mr. Schumer believe they have some kind of credit card they can use forever without any regard for our children and grandchildren.
"All of this affects our ability to invest and create private-sector jobs if government is sucking up all the money," he added.
Berntsen also does not shy away from taking the fight right to Schumer. He calls him "arrogant," and charges he has taken campaign contributions from so many sources over the years that he is beholden to too many people.
"He's a professional politician," he said. "I am not."
>Tea party support
Berntsen and Townsend both lay claim to the "tea party" vote that has energized other races -- like Sen. Scott Brown's in neighboring Massachusetts -- and gives hope to Republicans in "blue" states like New York.
Bentsen was energized by tea party supporters at the recent Republican State Convention in Manhattan, was accompanied through his Buffalo tour by local tea party organizer Rus Thompson, and counts among his supporters tea party darling and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Carl P. Paladino.
"None of the tea party people is looking for a contract or a job or a political favor," Berntsen said. "All they want is someone to carry America's banner."
Berntsen has two key advantages: party endorsement at the state convention this month, and the backing of the Conservative Party. No Republican has won statewide without Conservative backing since 1974.
The tea party movement, with its ability to organize vast numbers of voters for an event like a GOP primary, could prove instrumental in the September primary since neither Republican candidate has yet raised much money.