An Empire State Headache for Republicans?

Stuart Rothenberg March 22, 2006 · 11:05 PM EST

Looking for a sign of whether a big Democratic wave is developing? Try New York.

Once a state with genuine political competitiveness where liberal Republicans (including Thomas Dewey, Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller and Ken Keating) prospered, the Empire State has veered toward the Democrats over the past few decades.

Yes, New York Republicans have now held the governorship for three consecutive terms, and they retain their longtime lock on the state Senate. But Democrats hold more than a 2-to-1 advantage in the state’s Congressional delegation as well as both Senate seats and an unassailable majority in the state Assembly. And, of course, no Republican presidential nominee has carried the state since Ronald Reagan’s re-election landslide of 1984.

This cycle, Democrats are making a major effort to flip a handful of Congressional districts in the state, and they hope that strong Democratic showings at the top of the ticket, combined with a favorable national environment, could net them a seat or two in Congress.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) will coast to an easy re-election victory, and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is expected to win the Democratic nomination for governor and crush his eventual GOP opponent in November. Democrats also hope to make gains in the state Senate.

By contrast, New York political observers say Republicans have a chance to swipe only a single statewide office — attorney general — and even there, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, once thought of as a rising star, is off to another unimpressive start. Her competitiveness in that race stems from the baggage of the two leading Democratic contenders for the office, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo and former New York City Public Advocate Mark Green.

Overall, national Democrats believe that the combination of good candidate recruitment in New York and a favorable political environment has put seven New York House districts “in play” this cycle. But do they really have a chance in any of them?

In many ways, the best Democratic opportunity is in the 20th district (Saratoga Springs to Lake Placid), currently represented by Rep. John Sweeney (R), a four-term Congressman who previously served as New York labor commissioner and executive director of the state party.

His opponent, attorney Kirsten Gillibrand, 39, has good political bloodlines and worked in the Clinton administration. Attractive and personable, Gillibrand raised an impressive $370,000 through the end of December.

Sweeney has been hospitalized with high blood pressure, and he has ruffled some feathers within his own party, including backing candidates in county party races who eventually lost. He also has strained relations with outgoing Gov. George Pataki (R).

Just based on the numbers, Democrats should have their best shot at GOP Rep. Jim Walsh. Unlike the other six districts Democrats are targeting in the state, Walsh’s Syracuse-centered 25th district was carried by Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in 2004, 50 percent to 48 percent.

From an incumbency point of view, two GOP-held seats look particularly inviting. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert’s retirement creates an open seat in the 24th district (Utica/Rome), while first-term Rep. Randy Kuhl drew an unimpressive 51 percent in the 29th district against a weak opponent last time, making him an obvious target this time.

Elsewhere, Democrats think they have a shot against GOP Reps. Sue Kelly in the 19th district, Tom Reynolds in the 26th district and Vito Fossella in the 13th district.

Reynolds, as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, would be a particularly sweet trophy for Democrats, though his chairmanship gives him the means to fight back effectively against a strong challenge. Millionaire Jack Davis (D), who drew 44 percent against Reynolds last time, is running again.

As for Fossella’s seat, Democrats hope that New York City Councilman Bill de Blasio will take him on.

Yet while this crop of Democratic opportunities is better than in the past, Democrats remain distinct underdogs in all of these seats.

State political observers argue that upstate voters turn out with clock-like consistency, and that any surge or decline in turnout is likely to occur downstate. And there are plenty of Bush Republicans in these Democratic-targeted districts. In 2004, Bush carried Sweeney’s and Kelly’s districts with 53 percent, Boehlert’s with 52 percent, Kuhl’s with 56 percent, and Reynolds’ and Fossella’s with 55 percent.

The numbers simply are against the Democrats in these districts. “There are too many cows, too many trees and too many Republicans” for Gillibrand to knock off Sweeney, one insider told me.

In Boehlert’s district, Republicans are likely to nominate a popular GOP state Senator, probably Ray Meier, who actually looks to be stronger than Boehlert — who’s repeatedly faced tough primaries with conservatives — would have been in November. And Walsh’s likely opponent doesn’t look strong enough to threaten the relatively popular Congressman.

While I found Kuhl’s main challenger — retired naval officer and former Wesley Clark aide Eric Massa — to have an interesting background and potential appeal, I wasn’t impressed that he ended December with just more than $87,000 in the bank.

The most recent buzz about a de Blasio challenge to Fossella ignores the fact that de Blasio is a Brooklyn-based politician who would have a difficult time in Fossella’s district, which is dominated by Staten Island.

One last comfort for upstate Republicans is that state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno will pour big money into GOP-held state Senate districts to try to retain the party’s 35-27 majority — a factor that could help Republican efforts to retain the seven Congressional districts Democrats are targeting.

Still, despite all the challenges facing Democrats in the New York Congressional races, the contests are worth watching. Political waves can build bigger and faster than anyone expects, and that fact alone makes the Empire State worth paying attention to. Just don’t lay down money on any of the Democrats just yet.