For decades, the late congressman Jack Kemp was western New York’s conservative champion. A tough supply-sider and former Buffalo Bills quarterback, Kemp personified the region’s grit.
Since Kemp left office, the area’s blue-collar factory towns and sprawling farms, which constitute much of New York’s 26th congressional district, have remained solid Republican territory: Sen. John McCain won here, as did George W. Bush.
Until this week, NY-26 was widely expected to remain safely in GOP hands. Republicans enjoy a 26,000-voter registration edge, and the district’s residents are more socially conservative than those in other parts of the state.
With the click of a BlackBerry, things fell apart.
In February, Rep. Chris Lee, the district’s clean-cut GOP congressman, became an Internet sensation. Gawker, a New York–based gossip website, published shirtless pictures of Lee, his muscles flexed.
The snapshots were provided to Gawker by a woman who had placed a personal ad on Craiglist.com. In e-mail exchanges with the woman, Lee, who is married and 47 years old, reportedly described himself as a divorced 39-year-old lobbyist.
As the blog post drew giggles, Lee’s staff initially claimed that the congressman’s e-mail had been hacked. When more unseemly details emerged, the libidinous backbencher ’fessed up, and within hours resigned.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo promptly called for a special election. Voters will head to the polls next Tuesday.
Republican Jane Corwin, a state legislator, faces stiff competition from Democrat Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk. Jack Davis, a 78-year-old former Democrat, is running on the “Tea Party” line. Ian Murphy, a satirical blogger, has the Green-party nod.
In other words, it’s a mess. Davis, a wealthy industrialist and fiery former Marine, is a perennial congressional candidate. Yet after stumbling in past bids, he has suddenly mounted a strong third-party challenge. His protectionist views and anti-establishment rhetoric have connected with a slice of the electorate, much of which has struggled through the recession.
Corwin also finds herself in the middle of a proxy war between national Republicans and Democrats over Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. Corwin backs Ryan’s effort; Hochul has tethered her hopes to demonizing Ryan’s Medicare reforms, which she claims would harm seniors.
Democrats, sensing disarray in a deep-red district, would love to pick up the seat, mere weeks after Ryan and his House GOP colleagues promoted the budget at town-hall meetings. Republicans, fearful of that spin, are performing triage, sending organizers and volunteers to Corwin headquarters.
“Democrats are going to try to make the 2012 House elections a referendum on ‘Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare,’ which all but a small handful of Republicans voted for,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “NY-26 has too many complicating factors for this to fairly be considered a referendum on Ryan, but inevitably that is how many will interpret the election.”
Corwin acknowledges that Medicare has become the central debate in the race, even as she works to shift the focus to jobs and the deficit. “The tough part is that Democrats in Washington are sending their message that the Ryan plan is going to end Medicare,” she laments in an interview with National Review Online. “We all know that is simply not the case.”
In the final days, the race has tightened. A Siena College poll late last month showed Corwin leading the field with only 36 percent of the vote. Hochul drew 31 percent in the survey; Davis galloped to 23 percent. But Corwin remains far from a safe bet. A recent survey conducted by Public Policy Polling shows Hochul leading with 35 percent, Corwin with 31 percent, and Davis within nine points at 24 percent.
The Cook Political Report labels the race a “toss up.” So does political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who says that Hochul is “well-positioned to pull off a significant upset.”
“This race is a dead heat,” says one GOP operative with knowledge of internal polling. “The fundamental problem for Corwin is that Davis is drawing a significant portion of Republicans in polls. She has taken hits on Medicare. But she is lucky that Davis has been weak in response to the onslaught — that people are starting to view him as the Trojan-horse candidate.”
Come Tuesday, any immediate political takeaway would be rash, cautions David Wasserman, Cook’s House editor. “Every special election is a mutant species,” he says. “This one should come with a warning label: ‘Do not project onto next November’s elections.’ We have had five competitive special House elections in the past three years. The results usually provide very little predictive value for what is going to happen on the larger political landscape.”
Bizarre elections that say little about broader trends are not new in the Empire State. In 2009, in New York’s 23rd congressional district, upstate Republicans lost a three-way race after intraparty brawls enabled Democrats to cobble together enough votes to top the Tea Party candidate and the Republican. Doug Hoffman, the conservative challenger to the moderate GOP nominee, became a hero on the right.
Rob Ryan, a longtime state GOP operative and Hoffman’s chief strategist, warns against making any direct comparisons. Davis, with his faux tea-party credentials, is not Hoffman’s political brethren. Still, Ryan says, insurgents can rise in New York’s conservative pockets, even if Beltway players dismiss the possibility. Ross Perot, for instance, performed well here in 1992; Carl Paladino, a baseball-bat-wielding businessman who irked Republican grandees, won the region in last year’s gubernatorial race.
As he eyes NY-26, Ryan wonders whether the “chattering class is paying more attention to the day-to-day campaign,” in terms of the national narrative and Medicare scrapes, than residents. “This race is going to come down to which candidate has the best ground game,” he says. “In 2009, nobody could see that Doug Hoffman was going to come close, but we had a ground game. That is the question with Jack Davis: Are people responding to his campaign, even if the GOP is not?”
“There is really nothing like the NY-23 race,” Corwin asserts. Davis, she says, may be ginning up a few votes with his anti-trade talk, but he does not represent the main thrust of the tea-party movement, with its laser-like focus on jobs and the deficit. “Jack’s record speaks for itself,” she says, noting his past praise of President Obama and other liberals.
Corwin has a point. In 2006, GOP congressman Tom Reynolds, then chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, faced Davis, then a Democrat, in the general election. In a Democratic year, Reynolds was able to survive. Republican aides say Davis has much less momentum now than he had five years ago, and that Democrats are not flocking to his message, or his campaign, as some did during the Bush years. He is a spoiler without a base.
But Davis needs only to snatch some votes from Corwin to make a difference. Reynolds, in a phone interview, predicts that the race will be close, but believes that Corwin can win. “When I had challenges in 2006, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee came in full throttle and got beat,” he says. “In 2008, I put my consultants and supporters behind my successor, Chris Lee, and the Democrats came in full force and once again, they got beat.”
“Jack Davis, who started running for Congress in 2004, is now on his fourth straight cycle, and he has spent millions,” Reynolds continues. “He has a very protectionist viewpoint that resonates in parts of the district, in the blue-collar industrial areas around the Niagara frontier. On trade and NAFTA, as a free-trade candidate, I always had my challenges in making sure that I could get out my exact position and not be branded by him. When he says that he will spend $3 million, he is not kidding.”
The three major candidates enter the final week with their war chests stocked. According to the Federal Election Commission, Hochul has nearly $1 million, including $250,000 of her own funds. Corwin has $2.9 million, almost all of it coming from her personal wealth. Davis, as expected, has also reached into his own wallet, spending $2 million of his savings on the campaign, with more to come.
Outside groups have swarmed. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than $1.2 million has been ladled into the district in the past week. Corwin has been aided by national conservative outfits such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, a group with close ties to GOP strategist Karl Rove.
In the final days, American Crossroads will funnel $375,000 into the airwaves, bringing their total involvement in the race to more than $700,000. The group’s latest ad, entitled “Talk,” goes after Hochul’s record on a local town board, where she voted to raise property taxes. The tightly focused Hochul spot is a notable departure from their recent slew of anti-Davis ads.
The NRCC has also stepped in. On Monday, it spent $400,000 on television and radio buys. One of the main ads ties Hochul and Davis to Nancy Pelosi, warning that both would be her puppets. “Republicans are working hard to ensure western New Yorkers understand that seniors cannot afford Hochul’s radical ideas of slashing Social Security benefits and job-destroying taxes,” says Andrea Bozek, an NRCC spokesperson.
Democrats and progressive activists have put thousands behind Hochul. High-profile New York Democrats, such as Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have led fundraising drives on her behalf. So has Pelosi. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has pushed $59,000 toward the cause; MoveOn.org is urging its followers to donate.
House Speaker John Boehner is paying close attention. He traveled to the district earlier this month and spoke at a Corwin fundraiser. Since then, Boehner political staffers have trekked to Rochester and Buffalo, assisting the NRCC and Corwin teams. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, and Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, have also made stump stops in the district.
“Knowing what was happening, Boehner took an early interest,” says one GOP source. “But he has been encouraged by how Jane has handled things. The key thing, he said when he was up there, was to not to pay attention to the polls and tracking numbers. He told them to keep their heads down and work hard, making sure that they were using all of their tools and resources.”
The timing of the election could mean that turnout will be depressed. Motivating one’s base will likely be integral to winning, more so than in usual contests. “You don’t get the soft Republicans and soft Democrats in these types of elections,” says one GOP aide. “We have to drive out the base.”
That won’t be easy. Corwin’s campaign has been far from flawless. State GOP operatives complain about her staff’s “youth and inexperience” and worry that their constant needling of Davis could haunt. The main distraction has been a video confrontation of Davis that was recorded by Michael Mallia, Corwin’s chief of staff in the assembly.
In the 15-second clip, Davis is approaching his car when Mallia rushes toward him and asks about why he is ducking a debate. Davis reaches toward the lens in response and says, “You want to [get] punched out?” Mallia then flails and yelps as a Davis aide confronts him.
The incident has generated over 80,000 views on YouTube and dogged Corwin on the trail this past week. Local-news reports say that Mallia “escaped” to Florida and is unavailable for comment. Corwin is often pressed on the matter at public events.
Corwin has also had trouble uniting some tea-party groups behind her. On paper, she has been endorsed by the Conservative Party of New York, Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, and Tea New York — an impressive slate. But when you speak with local politicos, there are grumbles about how she was nominated.
After Lee resigned, county GOP chairmen from the district tapped Corwin to be the candidate. There was no primary, simply a selection process. Davis had attempted to get the party nod. So did David Bellavia, a decorated Iraq War veteran. Both felt betrayed by how Corwin seemingly waltzed into the nomination.
Davis, of course, mounted a third-party challenge. Bellavia is now working for Davis as a voluntary adviser. Both men are especially unhappy with the Mallia video, which was shot following a veterans’ event. Michael Caputo, a close friend of Bellavia and former Paladino adviser, says the nomination process could cost Corwin her seat by keeping some conservative voters at home.
Reynolds swats away the idea that a tea-party schism will rattle Corwin. “Jack Kemp first ran for Congress in 1970. The issues then were jobs and taxes,” he says. “Then in the era of the next congressman, Bill Paxon, it was jobs and taxes. During my time in office, it was jobs and taxes, and jobs and taxes still resonate.”
For Corwin, those two issues have been her focus. On Tuesday, she hopes Reynolds is right.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.