It's become cliché to describe Rep. Charles B. Rangel as being "in the fight of his political life."
Rangel faces another challenge — a rematch against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat — in Tuesday's primary. His congressional allies are increasingly confident he will survive this too, but the challenges he faces in his Harlem-based district remain precarious.
“My gut is that the momentum is on Charlie Rangel’s side,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a Thursday interview with CQ Roll Call.
“If you remember, he was walking with a cane, he had been in and out of hospitals,” she added of his 2012 primary against Espaillat. “This time, he is not sick. He’s the old Charlie, with lots of energy and lots of optimism and lots of hard work.”
His 2012 bid was tough, but early on, his current bid for New York's 13th District looked even more dire. Rangel fell on the wrong side of New York City’s mayoral race in 2013, and Espaillat brought momentum from his last bid.
A third candidate, Pastor Michael Walrond, entered the fray, and Democrats expected he would peel off African-American votes from Rangel. But a Siena poll released Thursday showed Rangel had a 13-point lead over Espaillat. Now Democrats question whether Walrond is taking away anti-Rangel votes from Espaillat instead.
Still, even Rangel's backers concede they don’t entirely trust the poll because turnout is expected to be so low. But numerous state and national players say privately they are betting on a Rangel win.
New York City is in such a prohibitively expensive media market, that races are won in field organization and direct mail wars. Nearly every operative and official interviewed by CQ Roll Call for this story said this campaign, more so than other races, is won by getting bodies to the polls. It's why the Espaillat's camp shrugged off the poll and Rangel's national support.
“In New York City, it really matters how many physical people you have on the ground,” Espaillat spokeswoman Chelsea Connor said in an interview. “He has Bill Clinton’s endorsement, [most of the] delegation’s endorsement. But where are they going to be on Election Day?”
“At the end of the day that he has the delegation’s support, but we have the ground operation.”
The delegation, along with the Congressional Black Caucus, can deliver funds to help the congressman. They were consequential to Rangel's financial advantage in the campaign.
One of Rangel’s biggest missteps over the last year was endorsing another candidate over now-Mayor Bill de Blasio in the 2013 mayoral race. But he has a longer record of being on the right side of political battles, which is why many on Capitol Hill are so fiercely behind him.
For example, one Empire State source noted that when former Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. threatened to primary Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in 2010, Rangel was one of her most out-front defenders. Gillibrand's Political Action Committee made two $5,000 donations to his campaign - one at the end of 2013 and another earlier this year.
Maloney described Rangel as “a fair leader of the delegation," a group that bonded over a chaotic, decade-plus stretch that included the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Sandy and the 2008 financial crisis. Beyond Maloney and Gillibrand, other top members in the delegation, including Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, transferred money to Rangel from their campaigns and leadership PACs.
The CBC counts Rangel as a founder of the organization, and for them, an Espaillat victory means one less member. As a result, CBC members pumped money into his campaign, and several members campaigned on his behalf in the district recently.
“Charlie has been a great member’s member,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “He’s been a not only a wonderful colleague but a dear friend to me and to a lot of the new members that have come in."
Sewell and Maloney, in particular, added financial heft to Rangel. Maloney represents the wealthiest House district in the country, New York’s Upper East Side, and Sewell boasts deep ties to the financial services industry.
Both women leveraged those worlds toward Rangel's re-election campaign. But even Maloney admits that money is not a singular factor in House races.
“The Eric Cantor campaign showed that money is not that important,” Maloney said. “It really basically comes down to voters in the district. Period."