Democratic county chairs in New York's 19th District are meeting Saturday to select their candidate of choice in a must-win seat for the party to make gains in the House.
Democrats have no shortage of interested people in this Hudson Valley district that President Barack Obama carried twice. But the 19th isn't classically blue. It's rural and agricultural, and Democrats are anxious about landing a candidate who fits the turf — someone who will allow them to capitalize on presidential-year turnout and GOP Rep. Chris Gibson finally being off the ballot .
The Democrat with perhaps the best national name recognition is the one who has some Democrats most worried. Mayday PAC CEO Zephyr Teachout garnered headlines for winning 34 percent of the vote against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014's gubernatorial primary, and now the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party are pushing her to run .
But for a party looking to avoid the blunder's of 2014, Teachout's progressivism, combined with the fact that her primary residence has recently been in Brooklyn (she now rents a home in Dutchess County) and she teaches at Fordham, are reasons to worry.
Democrats are afraid of nominating another Sean Eldridge, the wealthy husband of Facebook CEO Chris Hughes who won the Democratic nomination in 2014 and went on to lose to Gibson by 29 points. He never recovered from a New York Times profile that made him look out of touch with his blue-collar district , and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not reserve airtime on his behalf .
"Sean had a huge advantage. He was smart, he had everything you needed, but he did not connect with people," Columbia County Democratic activist and consultant Karen Feldman said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee attacked him as a carpetbagger — charges that some Democrats fear would be aimed at Teachout, who does enjoy some local support. The law professor declined to speak with Roll Call about why she's interested in running and said she's still weighing whether such a run makes sense.
"Obviously it was a bad year," one Democratic consultant said of the climate for Democrats in 2014. "But a big piece of it was the district shopping, not being from here. ... That’s part of the conversation happening there now." A local son, Livingston Town Councilman Will Yandik, is exciting some in the party — both for his ties to the district and for his potential to appeal to independents. The Ivy-League educated farmer says he's been in regular contact with the DCCC.
Whoever the candidate is, Yandik said, "is going to have to be an individual who can win the great middle." He praised Gibson for winning votes from all parties. "They saw him as an individual connected to the community," Yandik said, repeating the plaudits his backers use to describe him. "I haven’t been this excited about someone since Kirsten ran," Feldman said, comparing Yandik, who's also from Columbia County, to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whom Feldman has advised.
Still, other Democrats question how much Yandik's town council service really prepares him for a districtwide run and would prefer to see Kingston attorney Julian Schreibman, who lost to Gibson by 6 points in 2012, win the Democratic nomination. For his part, Schreibman argues that his upbringing — he was the first person in his family to go to college — and his legal work on security issues make him best suited for an election he predicts will be about the economy and national security.
A fourth interested Democrat is Margo Miller, who serves on the national finance committee of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and has raised money for Democratic candidates while living abroad. Having attended Dartmouth with Gillibrand, she's close to the junior senator. Although Miller was born and raised in Dutchess County, the fact she's been living in London for a number of years could turn off voters.
Ulster County residents Dan Ahouse, a Cablevision executive and former chief of staff to former Rep. Maurice Hinchey, and County Controller Elliot Auerbach are also interested in the race but are not meeting with the county chairs Saturday.
Democrats thought they had their candidate in Ulster County Executive Mike Hein. His abrupt exit from the race in December caught the party by surprise, and with 2016 now underway, Democrats are anxious about not yet having a candidate, especially since Republicans John Faso , the former Assembly minority leader, and businessman Andrew Heaney have a head-start on fundraising.
When the district's 11 county Democratic chairs convene this weekend, they'll be interviewing four Democrats for 30 minutes each, asking them why they want to run and how they plan to win. Their goal: to winnow the field.
At the end of the day, assuming they're able to unite around a candidate, the chairs will go back to their respective county committees and ask them to make an endorsement. That person would then qualify for the Democratic ballot. But anyone who doesn't earn the county endorsements can still qualify for the June 28 primary by collecting signatures.
On the GOP side, Heaney announced Thursday he wouldn't seek the backing of the county chairs, noting that his opponent already had them in his corner. Instead, he said, "I'm taking my case to the people in June."