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Reynolds Fighting on Two Fronts

As his own re-election campaign becomes a decidedly uphill affair, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) plans to continue playing a vigorous, hands-on role at the committee he has led since the end of 2002 — even as his ability to move about the country and monitor key House races has been curtailed.

“He’s still on conference calls with us. He’s still talking to candidates. He’s still doing all the things he typically does,” said Carl Forti, the NRCC spokesman.

Forti and other Reynolds intimates noted that the Congressman routinely spends most of his time in Buffalo when Congress isn’t in session, and they say he was planning for a tough campaign against millionaire factory owner Jack Davis (D) all along.

“Tom’s doing fine,” said former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), who preceded Reynolds in the Buffalo-area House seat and also served as an NRCC chairman. “He’s the greatest multitasker I’ve ever seen.”

What’s more, Paxon said, by the last few weeks of an election cycle, a campaign committee’s strategic plan already is in place, and it is up to the professional staff to implement it.

“When you get to the final month of the campaign, the work [of the chairman] has already been done,” he said.

But Reynolds’ mounting political peril at home — he trailed Davis by 15 points in a poll released by The Buffalo News over the weekend — illustrates the deteriorating political environment for Republican House candidates across the country and the challenges facing the NRCC as more races become competitive.

“The NRCC is getting spread so thin right now that they’ve really got to pick and choose where they’re going to play,” said a Washington, D.C.-based GOP consultant.

With some of Reynolds’ top political lieutenants ensconced at the NRCC, he faces a far different political environment in Western New York than the one he is accustomed to. And Democrats, who are growing increasingly optimistic nationally and in New York, believe Reynolds’ woes since becoming a central figure in the scandal surrounding ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) could hurt Republicans in nearby districts — especially Rep. Randy Kuhl (R) and state Sen. Ray Meier, the GOP nominee in the race to replace retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.).

“I think the Democrats will pick up at least three seats in New York state,” said former Buffalo-area Rep. John LaFalce (D-N.Y.).

Democrats — and even some Republicans privately — said Reynolds is far less able to affect the outcome in these races than he was even a few weeks earlier.

“I don’t think he’s going to be able to help or assist the other [New York] candidates in the way that he thought he would,” said Jennifer Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

For years, Reynolds — a former Erie County GOP chairman who has served on his local town board, on the Erie County Legislature and in the state Assembly — led a muscular Republican political machine in Western New York. The local GOP reached its zenith in the mid- to late-1990s, when Paxon was still a Congressional powerhouse, Reynolds was Assembly Minority Leader, and George Pataki, New York’s first Republican governor in a generation, was at the height of his popularity and able to steer money and patronage to the region.

But the decline of the Republican Party in Western New York has followed the sheer collapse of the state GOP — two circumstances that could hinder Reynolds’ re-election bid.

On Election Day, Republicans are expected to badly lose all four statewide contests in New York, including the race against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D).

In Erie County, Republican leaders in recent years hitched their star to County Executive Joel Giambra (R), a former Democrat who switched parties and has become enormously unpopular with the voters. And one former Pataki political adviser noted that in last month’s GOP Senate primary, the Erie County Republican organization couldn’t even deliver the county for its preferred candidate, who wound up losing anyway.

“The Republican organization up there is in total shambles,” the strategist said.

But James Domagalski, the Erie GOP chairman, vowed that the party will do all it can to save Reynolds, and said Republican activists are doubly determined to aid him now that he has become ensnared in the Foley scandal.

Domagalski pledged “to find every one of” the people that Reynolds has helped over the years and “get them to do what Tom never asks them to do — tell people what he does.”

“He is the most critical person to the future of the region, and we are not going to let him get swept up in something he didn’t have anything to do with,” Domagalski said.

Even if the local GOP organization isn’t as strong as it once was, Republicans believe that Reynolds’ own team and political apparatus is still solid.

“Our grass-roots efforts are second to none,” said L.D. Platt, a Reynolds spokesman.

Still, in what is sure to be a Democratic year in the Empire State and in Western New York, Reynolds’ prominence as a national GOP leader may hurt him. One Republican consultant with close ties to Western New York said that even without the Foley scandal, Reynolds probably would not have gotten more than 52 percent against Davis this year.

“Tommy, because of his position, identified himself as Mr. Republican at a time when the Republican brand was going downhill,” this consultant said.

“It was always going to be a competitive race,” Paxon agreed.

Although first lady Laura Bush headlined a fundraiser for Reynolds in Buffalo last week, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is scheduled to appear with him at a rally in Rochester on Oct. 20, no other national party figures are expected to campaign on his behalf.

Just as national Republican leaders have tried to cast Congressional elections everywhere as a choice between two candidates and two governing philosophies rather than a referendum on the GOP, Reynolds’ confidantes believe the worst is over for the four-term Congressman and that the mercurial Davis will not be able to stand up to the increased scrutiny the race is getting.

“We have a very positive record to run on,” Platt said. “Tom cares about and loves Western New York, and his record demonstrates that.”

Ben Pershing and Bree Hocking contributed to this report.

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