By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York's Conservative Party nominated a strong social and fiscal conservative, Wendy Long, as its Senate candidate on Monday -- handing Long's Republican Party bid a significant boost but also threatening to divide Republican voters.
The endorsement from the small but influential party was a coveted prize sought by all three Republican candidates, who will face off in a June 26 primary. The winner of that race will run as the GOP candidate in November U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, in a bid to be the first Republican to win a senatorial contest in New York since 1992.
Long, a New York City lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, described herself as a committed conservative who would bring a clear contrast in a race against Gillibrand, whom she called a "rubber-stamp" for President Barack Obama.
"I've got some news for the senator: she has maxed out her credit with New Yorkers and her Washington spending spree is about to end," said Long, adding that she would vote to repeal Obama's health care package, support tax cuts and would push for an overhaul of the country's energy policy.
Asked if she would remain in the race -- running on the conservative party's ballot line --even if she were to lose the Republican party primary, Long said she would.
"I promised the conservatives that I'm in the race till November, and I'm in the race till November," said Long.
The two other Republican candidates are Representative Bob Turner, who last year won an upset victory to fill New York City's congressional seat left vacant when Anthony Weiner resigned in a sex scandal, and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos. Both appeared the Conservatives' meeting on Monday. The nomination was somewhat unexpected since the Conservative Party chairman, Michael Long, has shared a decades-long friendship with Turner and was a key backer last year when Turner decided to run for congress.
Turner's upset win last September against a well-known Democrat in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one garnered national headlines and was seen as a referendum on Obama's economic and foreign policies.
But the victory was short-lived: this month, the district became a casualty in the state's once-per-decade redrawing of district lines. It was only then that Turner decided to enter the Senate race.
"In New York, (Republicans) have a ... registration disadvantage. I've been able to overcome that, and I intend to do that again," Turner told reporters on Monday.
Chairman Long, who is not related to Wendy Long, said the decision, which he said caused him "heartache," came down to Turner entering the race too late. "Not only did he come to the table too late... (Wendy Long) stands, head and shoulders, in all honesty, as a stronger candidate than he does," the party chairman said. "We're not in the business of just letting people rearrange the deck chairs."
Monday also marked the state's Democratic party's nominating convention, where Democrats formally threw their support behind Gillibrand to win re-election and her first full six-year term.
Gillibrand was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated in 2009 by Hillary Clinton, who was named Obama's Secretary of State. The following year Gillibrand won a special election to fill the remainder of the term with a commanding 63 percent of the vote.
Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs said he would welcome a race against any of Gillibrand's potential opponents, saying all of them are too conservative to appeal to New York voters.
"For all three of them, they'd be more successful in a different state in a different century." he said. A January poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion found 44 percent of registered voters were unsure which candidate they would vote for. Fewer than four in ten registered voters said they would "definitely" back Gillibrand, while 18 percent said they planned to vote against her, the poll found. Marist has not done a poll of the Republican field.
"I think the best thing she's got going for her is that this will be a presidential election year, turnout will be higher in New York, and the higher the turn-out the better the Democratic advantage in New York," said Marist pollster Lee Miringoff.
Republicans have not won a Senate race in New York since 1992, when Alfonse D'Amato narrowly beat Robert Abrams to earn a third term. D'Amato, however, lost his bid for a fourth term in 1998 to Charles Schumer.
(Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Dan Burns)