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New York Offers Landscape-Shifting Potential

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Democrats are optimistic that they can net several seats in New York in November. But to do that they have to beat Republicans such as Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle and Chris Gibson and make sure vulnerable Democrats such as Reps. Kathy Hochul (above) and Bill Owens return.

If you believe the spin, Democrats and Republicans are both thrilled with their prospects for House gains in the Congressional battleground of New York.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, who calls New York home and has much at stake there this fall, crowed about Tuesday’s primary results in a statement.  “New York Republicans are in trouble,” Israel said while predicting that a political reversal from last cycle could be on tap.

“Democrats have the opportunity to make big gains across the state,” the DCCC wrote in a memo Wednesday. “New York Republicans are on the run and Democratic incumbents are in strong position for November.”

But Republicans, who won six Empire State seats in November 2010, did their own form of gloating in a Wednesday conference call with reporters, knocking Democratic recruiting in the state and talking up their potential to build on pickups from 2010.

“We have an opportunity to expand the playing field in New York,” National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Guy Harrison said. “You look at the offensive opportunities we have, we’ve got another five opportunities there.”

The truth is a bit more nuanced than either party would have you believe.

The GOP doesn’t have five serious pickup opportunities in New York — and Democrats appear unlikely to make big gains.

In fact, the reality on the ground is not particularly good for House Democrats. As the map currently stands, there are a number of competitive races for both parties, leading to the very real possibility that a win by one side could offset a win by the other. Democrats could lose as many New York seats as they gain, which would be a particularly troubling development for Israel if the road to the majority goes through New York, as the DCCC chairman often declares. Democrats need a net gain of 25 House seats to take the Speaker’s gavel.

Former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said that is unlikely. “The Democrats need to win several in New York in order to have a gateway to get to a majority,” he said. “I don’t think ... that they are going to make the inroads that they had hoped for in New York.”

That’s because the Congressional map is not the one a lot of New York Members wanted, nor is it a map that sets Democrats up for as many gains as they might have been positioned for had Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the Democratic-controlled Assembly pushed through a Democratic gerrymander of Congressional lines.

After the split Legislature deadlocked — the GOP narrowly controls the state Senate — a federal judge took over drawing the lines. That left new Members such as Reps. Kathy Hochul (D) and Chris Gibson (R) in tough new districts more favorable to the other party than their own.

Both parties have scored a few good recruits. The GOP has Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, an impressive politician, running against Rep. Louise Slaughter (D). Slaughter has had significant health issues that kept her away from Congress for weeks, and much of the redrawn district is new turf for her.

Democrats have former Rep. Dan Maffei, who was narrowly defeated by now-Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R) in 2010 and has a solid shot at taking back the
Democratic-leaning seat in November.

Democrats are also excited about attorney Sean Patrick Maloney, who will  take on Rep. Nan Hayworth (R), and Julian Schreibman, who will challenge Gibson. Maloney, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, has shown a solid ability to fundraise that leaves Democrats bullish on the seat. Even Republicans in the state admit he has chops and will be formidable.

The party didn’t get its top recruit, Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, to take on Gibson. But Schreibman, a former federal prosecutor, has a good story to tell: He helped put terrorists in jail. When it comes to the big picture though, it’s less about the candidates and more about a map that wasn’t drawn to give anyone a partisan edge.

“The way the judge drew the lines gave us opportunity,” said GOP pollster John McLaughlin, who has a number of New York clients. “I think we’re looking good this time.”

Democrats put a good spin on it, too.

“It’s a good map if you’re going to be aggressive,” said a top House Democratic aide familiar with New York. The aide admitted that it left a number of Members of both parties more vulnerable than they would have been if state politicians had drawn an incumbent-protection map. But the aide felt Democrats were better poised to protect their vulnerable incumbents than Republicans were to protect theirs.

That may be partly true in a state that will definitely vote for President Barack Obama in November and where voters will be more comfortable with the Democratic brand. And unlike in 2010, Republicans won’t have a huge anti-Democratic wave at their back. But a less negative climate won’t undo the deep vulnerability of candidates such as Rep. Bill Owens and Hochul. And, in many competitive districts, the president isn’t particularly popular.

In another development, former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) has started a super PAC to help Republicans in Empire State Congressional races. He told the Wall Street Journal that he hoped to raise millions of dollars, but it’s unclear just how potent a force the political action committee will actually be.

Democrats brushed off the threat of his group. “I don’t think Pataki amounts to much,” the top House Democratic aide said.

And Republicans, for their part, dismissed the idea of New York giving them any trouble in their bid to retain control of the House. “At the end of the day,” Reynolds said, “we’re not going to find New York causing indigestion to the national
Republican Party.”

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