New York’s 19th congressional district, along the sleepy Hudson River valley, could play host to one of the most-watched House races of 2014.
The Republican incumbent, Representative Chris Gibson, was elected in the GOP wave of 2010. But now Sean Eldridge, a wealthy 26-year-old activist and liberal darling, is seriously mulling a run.
Eldridge is married to Facebook co-founder and New Republic publisher and editor-in-chief Chris Hughes. The couple has already won fawning treatment from the New York Times, which ran a 2012 piece about them headlined “A Powerful Combination” and earlier this month ran a front-page piece about their move to the 19th district headlined “Young, Rich and Relocating Yet Again in Hunt for Political Office.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee is closely watching. “You have to take it seriously any time somebody has $700 million at their disposal” to challenge a GOP incumbent, says NRCC press secretary Ian Prior. But Eldridge, Prior says, is “just looking to leverage his wealth into a congressional seat,” and “I don’t think that narrative is going to work in the 19th district.”
“We won’t keep up” in fundraising, Gibson says bluntly. “We understand that we’re going to be outspent.”
“But we still think we can win decisively because there’s some things money can’t buy,” he remarks. “Among these are votes.” And Gibson had an impressive showing in 2012: He was reelected with almost 53 percent of the vote in a district that President Obama won by six points.
Gibson grew up in a Democratic family; as a teen in upstate New York in the late Seventies Gibson was one of four children in an Irish Catholic family. Times were tough for the family during that decade’s economic woes. Gibson’s father, a mechanic, spent “a lot of time laid off or on strike,” Gibson recalls.
“Gas and heating prices were spiking and food prices were going up, so it was a very challenging period for my family,” Gibson says. “I don’t recommend this, but my dad — to help us get through the winter, he bought a kerosene heater, and he had it in the kitchen so that the furnace wouldn’t have to kick off.”
In his high-school history classes, Gibson especially enjoyed American history, learning about the U.S.’s greatest days. At home in the evenings, he’d occasionally turn the TV on and watch Jimmy Carter deliver an Oval Office address. “He seemed like a very moral man at the time,” Gibson remembers. “He was wearing sweaters. He was telling us to turn the thermostat down. And I was thinking, ‘Are our best days behind us?’”
In 1980, he became enthralled with Ronald Reagan, voting for him thinking “this is what our country needs.” He tried to convince his father to vote for Reagan as well, but to no avail — until four years later, when the elder Gibson cast his ballot for Reagan too.
After college graduation — Gibson was the first in his family to obtain a college degree — came a 24-year Army career, which included deployments during both Persian Gulf wars and to Kosovo. Gibson earned four Bronze Stars during his career, and taught politics at West Point after receiving a Ph.D. in government from Cornell.
Just before his retirement in 2010, Gibson, then a colonel, was sent to earthquake-devastated Haiti as the commander of the second brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. It was a sobering experience, even for an experienced veteran such as Gibson. “I had four combat tours,” he says, “and I never saw death on a scale like I saw in Haiti. A quarter-million people lost their lives.”
Gibson now lives with his wife and three children in a house they bought in 2009 around the corner from his childhood home. He ran for and won office in 2010; now he talks enthusiastically about balancing the budget and about the need for fiscal responsibility.
And perhaps not surprising for someone who grew up during some of America’s worst unemployment since the Great Depression, Gibson is passionate about job creation. Most of his district, he tells me, has unemployment rates a bit below 8 percent, but he’s especially concerned about a couple of areas that have unemployment rates above that — in the case of one area, an unemployment rate in the double digits.
Gibson himself is well aware that he’s likely heading into an expensive, high-profile campaign. And he’s ready. He has told constituents he won’t be in the House more than eight years. “That puts a horizon on my service, and so a pep in my step. We’re here to get things done,” he says. And now, with only two and a half years of congressional service completed so far, he has no intention of being pushed out.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.