Rep. Kathy Hochul should be toast.
Since the New York Democrat won a special election victory in May 2011 with less than 50 percent of the vote, the climate has turned less favorable to Democrats nationally and in New York. Hochul’s already Republican-leaning district was made more Republican through redistricting — it now would have voted 54 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. Her GOP opponent, Chris Collins, is a wealthy former local elected official, willing to put his own money in the race. And Hochul is running in a presidential election year in a district President Barack Obama will almost certainly lose.
But Hochul, who highlights her independence, has a surprisingly strong shot at winning her first full term in Congress this November. It makes the race for the Empire State’s newly configured 27th district a true tossup worth watching.
Hochul won her upset special election victory messaging about the dire effects Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial budget would have on Medicare.
National Democrats, who admit the makeup of the district is “tough,” expect Hochul and her allies to continue talking about Medicare in a similar way.
In an interview Monday at a Washington, D.C., sandwich shop, Hochul ticked through a litany of cuts in that budget that she said would hurt her constituents. “The Ryan budget and Medicare continue to be issues in our district,” she said, adding that, politically, it “continues to be the gift that keeps giving.”
But Collins, who doesn’t support the cuts to Medicare in the Ryan budget, said discussing the entitlement program was something he was looking forward to.
“I can’t wait to debate Medicare with Rep. Hochul,” he said in a telephone interview. Collins highlighted Hochul’s “support of Obamacare, which takes
$500 billion out of Medicare.”
National Republicans believe that in New York’s 27th district, and across the country, a focus on the cuts to future Medicare spending embedded in the Affordable Care Act will inoculate their candidate from the attacks regarding the Ryan budget’s changes to Medicare.
This week, Hochul will vote against repealing the health care law for the second time, she said. It’s definitely a vote the GOP will use to attack her. But she didn’t seem particularly concerned about its political ramifications. “I have really smart constituents,” she said. “The national parties should not underestimate the intelligence and knowledge of our voters.”
If Democrats have their way, personality appears poised to play a big role in this race. Hochul is widely seen as affable and at ease with retail politicking. In person, she is engaging and warm.
Her opponent doesn’t have the same reputation. Republicans familiar with New York noted Collins’ sometimes caustic personality.
“There are those who like Chris Collins, and there are those who dislike him,” a longtime New York Republican operative said. “He can have an attitude. He’s got diarrhea of the mouth sometimes.”
Collins has had a few notable gaffes, including one in 2009 in which he compared the New York state Assembly Speaker, who is Jewish, to Hitler. Collins later apologized.
Democrats see his perceived personal negatives as a real advantage.
But Collins insisted that the narrative about him being unlikable is not accurate, and, more than that, it is his résumé that will matter to voters.
“I’m not out there to please everyone, I’m out there to do a job. And I do it in a businesslike fashion,” he said. “They want to elect someone to Congress ... who doesn’t cast votes to win friends but casts votes to get results and get this country turned around.”
He admitted that Hochul is a “very skilled politician” but said that is, “at the end of the day, her undoing.”
That’s probably not true, as Collins is also a politician. He lost re-election to a second term as Erie County executive last year. He also lost a bid for Congress in 1998 and flirted with running for governor in 2010.
But more than talking about Hochul as a politician, Collins and his aides emphasized she is on the wrong side of the district on the issues.
“The debate in this election won’t fall on nonsensical personal stuff,” explained Collins’ senior adviser, Chris Grant, “but rather on economic vision: Whose policies are going to let the private sector create more jobs?”
Republicans in New York and D.C. believe Collins’ personal story of his time as businessman — he started as a shoe salesman and ended up as a successful executive creating jobs in upstate New York — will be extremely effective.
But Democrats will work to paint him as an “out-of-touch millionaire.”
Whatever narrative breaks through, though, Collins’ wealth will be useful. Hochul raised more than $500,000 in the second quarter of this year and had about $1.2 million in cash on hand at the end of June.
Still, the dynamics of the district and the year are not in her favor. But Hochul said her special election victory proves she can win again.
“You don’t have to have the most money — I didn’t have tons of money from super PACs flying in. And we did it a year ago, with an opponent that people said was unbeatable in a district people said I can’t win.”
“So,” she said, “we’re doing it again. We’re doing it again.”