Surrounded on three sides by water, New York's 1st district is the only one in the Empire State on firm redistricting ground. But politically, it's on the bubble.
Five-term Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop is likely to face businessman Randy Altschuler in a tossup rematch in eastern Long Island that the Democratic and Republican national committees are watching closely. Bishop squeaked out a 593-vote victory in 2010.
With the state's redistricting process in chaos, the 1st is one of a few districts almost certain to see little change in the 2012 redraw. The Suffolk County-based district needs to pick up about 11,000 new residents, but Democrats and Republicans there expect the political contours of the district to remain quite similar.
"It's going to be tight, no matter what," a longtime New York Republican operative said. "When push comes to shove, [it] is a district that's really sliced right down the middle, Republican and Democrat."
Eleven months before voters go to the polls, the contours of the race are starting to come into focus. So is the line of attack for both candidates: jobs, jobs, jobs.
Altschuler, who faced a fierce primary in 2010 that sapped his political and financial capital, appears likely to have a much smoother route to the nomination this cycle. He faces 2010 candidate George Demos, an attorney, but key state Republicans have lined up behind Altschuler this time. GOP operatives familiar with the district hope that will give him a boost, allowing him to concentrate on Bishop early on.
In an interview last week, Altschuler did exactly that. Calling Bishop a "creature of Washington," he said the 1st district Congressman's "job is to try to create an environment so that small businesses, which are the foundation of the economy in Suffolk County, can thrive."
"He has failed miserably," Altschuler said, adding that the campaign would be a "referendum on Tim Bishop."
Altschuler stressed his personal story and his business bona fides.
"I'm a private-sector businessman. Self-made — grew up with a single mother — who successfully created two companies that have created jobs all around the world and the United States," he said. "I'm going to apply that when I'm our Congressman to help bring back some of the jobs to Long Island that Tim Bishop has let walk out the door."
The departure of jobs is a potent line of attack, but it cuts sharply both ways. Democrats will attack Altschuler, as they did in 2010, for his former business OfficeTiger, which outsourced jobs to India. And they note that if that line of attack was successful enough to beat him in a truly abysmal environment for Democrats, the 2012 climate doesn't bode well for his chances.
"It's just a different year," said one New York Democrat with knowledge of the district. "Their fundamental problem is Randy Altschuler is still an outsourcer who sent thousands of jobs overseas in an election that's going to be about the economy."
Altschuler brushed off this line of attack, repeating that he had "created jobs all around the world and around this country."
Increased name identification should be an added advantage for Altschuler this cycle, but he'll have to work hard to make sure the outsourcing attacks don't stick.
Bishop forecasts a tough race ahead as he seeks his sixth term, but he said the climate was better for him than it was two years ago.
"Look, in '08, I won by 47,000 votes. In '10, I won by 593. I'm still the same guy," he said. "A presidential year brings out a different electorate, an electorate that, I believe, will be more favorably disposed to me."
The Congressman emphasized his intense work ethic. He said he works 70 to 80 hours each week for the district and that his office has closed more than 15,000 constituent cases since he first took the oath in 2003. He described himself as a "nonpartisan, solution-oriented problem solver."
Beyond the messaging though, if Bishop has a true vulnerability this cycle, it's the mismatch between his district and his voting record. Republicans hold a voter registration advantage in the district, which George W. Bush narrowly won in 2004 and Barack Obama carried by 3 points in 2008. According to a new CQ Vote Study, in 2011, Bishop voted 95 percent of the time with Democrats in votes where a majority of Democrats voted against a majority of Republicans, hardly positioning himself as a down-the-middle type of Member.
But Bishop said his constituents support his opposition to the "extreme" GOP agenda. Asked whether Obama could win his district this year, Bishop said he didn't know. But, he added, "I don't believe my fortunes are tied to the president."
Long Island sits in the New York media market, which makes advertising extremely expensive — and fundraising extremely important.
According to preliminary numbers, Bishop pulled about $200,000 in the fourth quarter of last year and had about $1.1 million in the bank at the end of December, a solid way to start the election year.
Altschuler raised more than $210,000 in the last quarter and had $580,000 in cash on hand at the end of last month.
In a sign of national Republicans' interest in the race, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) will headline a fundraiser for Altschuler next month in New York City.
Altschuler has the potential to partially self-fund. Asked about putting his own money in the race, which he has yet to do this cycle, the businessman was coy.
"We will have the resources we need to win this race," he said.