A political quagmire on the Democratic bench in New York's open 21st District has emboldened Republicans in a district that was already a GOP pick-up opportunity.
On Wednesday, local Democratic officials unanimously endorsed Aaron Woolf , a documentary filmmaker from Elizabethtown, N.Y., in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Bill Owens.
Woolf's endorsement from the 21st District's 12 county chairmen came after some high-profile Democrats, including former Rep. Scott Murphy, D-N.Y., declined bids for the seat.
Sheila Comar, chairwoman of the Washington County party, said in a statement that Woolf was the best candidate to continue Owens' "work to protect our seniors and the Medicare guarantee, middle class families, and reflect the independent spirit that makes the North Country strong. Woolf is a problem solver who will take a commonsense approach and is committed to working together to find solutions that create more jobs and spur New York’s economy."
Republicans said the thin bench of candidates to choose from indicates Democrats are not hopeful they can hold on to the upstate New York seat. "Republicans see an opportunity in northern New York because of the failures of Washington, and it’s highlighted by the fact that Democrats have been unable to find a star candidate," said Brendan Quinn, a GOP operative from the district.
On the Republican side, local party leaders are coalescing around Elise Stefanik, a former aide to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., during the 2012 presidential campaign. Stefanik received the endorsement of the local Republican committee last week.
The Democratic county chairmen endorsed Woolf over a wide field of applicants, reportedly including former state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a Republican-turned-Democrat who now works in the administration of New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Scozzafava ran as a Republican against Owens in a 2009 special election. However, after another Republican entered the race, attacking Scozzafava on her conservative record, Scozzafava dropped out of the contest a week before the election and endorsed Owens.
Owens went on to win the special and two re-election battles before announcing in January that he would not seek a third term.
While the local party committee endorsement is not necessary to mount a primary campaign in the Empire State, it’s rare for non-endorsed candidates to petition themselves onto the ballot. Candidates who do not earn their party committee’s endorsement must collect 1,250 signatures to run.
Owens' own rise to Congress began when he won the local Democratic Committee's endorsement before the 2009 special primary. At the time, he was an attorney and political unknown.
New York's 21st District is rated a Tossup by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call. President Barack Obama carried the district by a 6-point margin in 2012, as Owens won re-election by a slim 2-point margin.