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Republicans Eye Comeback in Gillibrand House Seat « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/01/gillibrand.jpgKirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (Splash Photography)

Before Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) was appointed to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, the rumor among Democrats was that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted the 42-year-old congresswoman to stay put. On Sunday, Speaker Pelosi confirmed that rumor.

“This is a district that is important to us,” said Pelosi on “This Week with George Stephanopolous.” “We worked very hard to win that seat. And so, of course, I want to keep my numbers here.”

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Elephant.jpg

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Democrats are making it known, with striking candor, that Gillibrand’s seat in upstate New York will be very tough to hold. Republicans view the 20th District as a stronghold for their party that only got away from them in 2006 thanks to a run of bad political luck and the new senator’s impressive campaigning and fundraising skills.

“This should be a Republican seat,” said Bob Bellafiore, an Albany-based media consultant and former press secretary to Gov. George Pataki (R). “Having hit rock bottom, this is the first step for Republicans in New York to start their comeback, by winning a seat that should be rightfully theirs.”

“At the moment the state GOP is a body that’s lying flat, out cold. This is a way to show that its hands are still twitching.”

In public, Republicans are predicting a tough battle. The word from the National Republican Congressional Committee is that Democrats would hold the seat were the election held today, given the popularity of President Obama in New York and the disastrous recent record of Republican congressional candidates in the Northeast. Since 2004 the party has lost five House seats in New England and six in New York, bringing them down to three members across the entire region. But Republicans are quietly optimistic about taking over the open NY-20 House seat due to the party’s structural advantages in the district and its deeper bench of candidates. A victory in New York would provide a much-needed sign of life for Republicans, stronger evidence than even the December Senate runoff in Georgia that Americans want a strong opposition party to challenge the Democrats.

“We view this as a potential opportunity,” said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain. “The local party will choose a candidate, and we’ll assess the situation from there.”

Democrats point to the district’s party registration and electoral history to argue that they, not the Republicans, will be underdogs in the upcoming special election. While Obama carried the district by four points over Sen. John McCain, President Bush carried it by seven points over Vice President Al Gore and eight points over Sen. John Kerry. Republicans hold a 3-2 lead in voter registration across the 20th District, with 196,118 members of the GOP to only 125,486 Democrats.

Another Republican advantage is the party’s treasure trove of candidates. The 20th District sprawls over nine counties represented, for the most part, by Republican state senators and assembly members. Their declared candidates include State Sen. Betty Little, who represents the northern counties of the district, Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, who represents much of populous Saratoga County, and former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, who represented the southern part of the district from 1987 to 2003.

“Tedisco and Faso are better known than any of the Democratic candidates,” said Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for the Sienna Poll. “Tedisco is on the local news, in local newspapers-he’s well-known throughout district. People still remember Faso from his run for governor [in 2006].”

The Republican race so far has been a tussle between the different parts of the district. There will be no primary for either party; both the Republican and the Democratic candidates will be selected in a vote by the district’s county chairs. Tedisco has been endorsed by the GOP in Saratoga County, which casts a third of the district-wide vote; Faso has won the party’s endorsements in Greene County and Columbia County, which together cast around one-sixth of the vote.

Among Democrats, the race is still wide open. According to Columbia County Democratic Chairman Chris Nolan, “almost thirty” potential candidates have made their interest known to the district’s party leaders. Some, such as former New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter, have no electoral experience. Those who do, such as Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Ron Kim, lack the electoral reach or name identification of the leading Republicans.

“The Democratic candidate has an easier case to make than the Republican candidate,” said Democratic consultant Kyle Kotary. “‘If you like Gillibrand, you’ll like me. If you like President Obama, you’ll like me.’ Either party’s candidate should get as close to Gillibrand as possible, but the Democratic candidate is going to be the one who gets to share a stage with her.”

The Democrats also have a potential dark horse in Assemblyman Tim Gordon, a member of the Independence Party, an 18-year-old centrist third party, who was elected in a 2006 upset and re-elected easily in 2008. Gordon caucuses with the Democratic majority in Albany, and Democrats are keen on the possibility of a fusion candidate who would chip away at their disadvantage in voter registrations.

“The Independence Party line either goes to Gordon or it goes to the Republican,” said Kyle Kotary.

Democrats in the 20th District pointed to two more potential advantages over the Republicans. One is the local popularity of the state’s most prominent Democrats, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (who reportedly pushed for the Gillibrand pick) and former President Bill Clinton. Even Gov. Paterson enjoys a high favorable rating in upstate New York, according to Monday’s Siena Poll. Democrats are confident about bringing all three figures into the district before the special election.

Another Democratic advantage is the timing of the election, which is up to Paterson. The district’s Democratic county chairs are holding regular conference calls-one yesterday, one today, one this weekend-in which they’re debating their possibilities before they decide on a candidate. They could decide on a candidate and inform the governor before he announces the election date. “We’re not doing county-by-county endorsements and holding a candidate bake-off,” scoffed Chris Nolan.

Democrats in Washington are attempting to lower expectations for the special election, brushing aside the NRCC’s agnostic take on the race as spin for a race they’re already putting in the “win” column. DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer called the coming election a “difficult” one for Democrats in a “Republican-leaning district.” Before the race has even begun, Republicans are readying for a result that they can call a repudiation of Democratic rule in Washington, while Democrats write it off as regression to the mean.

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