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N.Y. Seat Gives GOP Fresh Hope

The upcoming special election to replace Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who will be sworn in Tuesday as New York’s junior Senator, presents opportunities for Republicans and Democrats — and an infinite amount of political peril.

By all rights, Republicans should be favored to recapture the rural upstate seat that Gillibrand won in a bloody upset in 2006. A win would provide the GOP with a desperately needed sense of momentum following two disastrous election cycles.

But after three special House races last year turned conventional wisdom on its head, leaders of both parties are wary about claiming any kind of early advantage.

“We view this as a potential opportunity,” said Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was equally circumspect.

“While a special election will be difficult in this traditionally Republican-leaning district, the New York Democrats and the DCCC are working aggressively to keep this district in the Democratic column,” he said.

Part of what’s keeping both national parties on edge is that they don’t know what kind of nominees they’ll wind up with — and they have precious little say in the process. The parties probably won’t decide how much money that they are going to invest in the race until they know who the candidates are.

Gov. David Paterson (D) is expected later this week to formally call a special election, and it would come 30 to 40 days after he officially makes the declaration. But there will be no primaries: The party chairmen from the 10 counties in the sprawling district get to select their nominees in a weighted vote based on population.

This morning in Albany, the 10 GOP chairmen from the 20th district are scheduled to meet — but whether they’re prepared to anoint someone or will merely discuss procedure and the pros and cons of prospective candidates remains to be seen.

“If there’s an overwhelming sentiment to go one way, there’s no sense in wasting time,” said Matt Walter, a spokesman for the New York Republican Party.

But several GOP insiders cautioned that the county chairmen are unlikely to have reached a consensus by the time they meet.

Similarly, the 10 Democratic leaders held a 90-minute conference call Sunday night, but Saratoga County Chairman Larry Bulman, representing the biggest county in the 20th district, said Monday that it could be another week or two before the party designates its nominee. All 10 county chairmen released a statement Monday night saying they would accept applications for the House nomination until noon on Wednesday.

For Republicans, whose performance at the Congressional level in New York has been even more bleak than it has been nationally — they went from having 12 Members in the Empire State delegation in 2002 to three Members Tuesday — a special election win would be particularly meaningful.

“This is an open seat in an area that traditionally has leaned Republican,” one national GOP strategist said. “It is the kind of seat Republicans need to make competitive if they want to begin a march back toward respectability in the House.”

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