Republican nominee Jane Corwin appears to be avoiding many of the pitfalls that produced the GOP’s last New York special election disaster, but Jack Davis could still make things interesting.
Corwin formally captured the endorsements of the Conservative and Independence Parties in recent days, securing her place on the May 24 ballot on those two ballot lines in addition to the Republican line.
But Davis, an independently wealthy businessman who failed to capture the GOP nomination over Corwin, has since hired a “petition signature-gathering firm” to help ensure he gets a spot on the special election ballot to succeed former Rep. Chris Lee (R). Further, Davis, a former Democrat, has taken advantage of New York’s quirky election laws and will likely get the “Tea Party” ballot line, a move that has angered the area’s largest tea party group, which hasn’t been particularly fond of Davis thus far.
“We have volunteers and we have paid people as well. This is obviously a steep climb,” Davis campaign manager Curtis Ellis told Roll Call on Monday, describing the tight window to gather thousands of signatures from western New York residents. “We have hired a petition signature-gathering firm to do that -— the people that did the Gray Davis recall campaign, you know? These are people who gather signatures; they know what they’re doing.”
Ellis refused to provide the name of the firm and later clarified that he wasn’t sure whether the company is the same one used in the massive effort to recall the former California governor in 2003.
Third-party candidates such as Davis who fail to win any one of the state’s major ballot lines have 12 days from the time that the governor formally declares the vacancy to gather 3,500 signatures. That declaration came last week, and candidates have six more days to gather signatures. Iraq War veteran David Bellavia, another GOP hopeful who lost the endorsement of the local Republican county chairmen to Corwin, has also been collecting signatures.
While there’s no doubt Corwin, a well-funded state Assemblywoman, is the strong favorite in the Republican-leaning district, the situation is making some people nervous. Davis or Bellavia could play spoiler should they attract a significant portion of the Republican electorate, handing the seat to a Democrat, as was the case in New York’s 23rd district special election in 2009.
Davis’ actions in particular have caught the attention of political strategists.
“The narrative that has always been there with Jack is that he’s willing to say and do anything to win,” one Washington, D.C.-based campaign aide said. “He’s on a mission.”
Davis, who has said he will spend up to $3 million of his personal fortune on the race, also has ample political baggage. And the National Republican Congressional Committee will work to ensure it’s well-known in the coming months should it determine that he poses a substantial threat to Corwin.
The Davis campaign had previously been accused of petition fraud, and allegations surfaced in 2008 that the three-time failed Democratic candidate paid off Independence Party leaders to help secure their endorsement.
Those issues aside, there’s reason to believe Corwin is in a much stronger position than GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava in the 2009 special election. Scozzafava failed to capture the Conservative Party line because she was deemed too socially moderate and then she ultimately dropped out of the race and backed the Democrat.
The order of the ballot, always a factor in low-turnout elections, will be topped by the Democratic line, followed by Republican, Conservative, Working Families (which usually goes to the Democratic nominee) and Green Party.
Should Davis and Bellavia qualify, they would appear at the bottom.
New York law allows third-party candidates to create their own ballot line if they collect the necessary signatures. Bellavia, the ideological favorite of western New York’s largest tea party group, will seek the “Federalist” line after Davis claimed the “Tea Party” line.
“We obviously have some objection to that. For one thing, he hasn’t participated in any of the tea party functions at all. He hasn’t been a member,” said Julianne “Jul” Thompson, a co-founder of TEA New York.
She noted that Davis’ inactivity with the movement wouldn’t necessarily disqualify him from earning her group’s endorsement, should it choose to endorse, so long as his policies are consistent with tea party values. But Davis didn’t give them a chance to decide.
“It’s a done deal. He’s not seeking [the endorsement]. He just did it. He applied under the Board of Elections with that name, and now it’s his,” Thompson said. “That’s confusing to the public. If they go in to vote and see his name under the tea party line, they’d assume he’s the tea-party-endorsed candidate. But we haven’t made a decision. We find that problematic.”
The Bellavia campaign did not return a message left Monday. The Davis campaign, however, reported that its signature-collecting effort is going well.
“We’ve been out gathering signatures since the moment the governor filed his proclamation with the Board of Elections,” Ellis said, declining to disclose exactly how many signatures had been gathered so far. “We are meeting and exceeding our goals.”
Davis isn’t depending solely on the paid services of the signature-collecting firm either. Volunteers from a competing tea party organization, the Western New York Tea Party Coalition, have pledged support for Davis. TEA New York, however, questions the ability of the smaller group to influence the process, describing it as “a rogue” organization.
Democrats, meanwhile, have begun interviewing candidates by phone, but they do not appear to be rushing. The frontrunner is widely considered to be Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul.