Club May Keep Powder Dry in NY-29

Posted July 21, 2004 at 6:53pm

The Club for Growth appears to be re-evaluating its earlier plan to work against New York state Sen. Randy Kuhl (R), the frontrunner to succeed retiring Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.).

David Keating, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based anti-tax group, said that representatives of the club met with Kuhl this week and have not yet decided what to do in the Sept. 14 primary.

A club decision to endorse Kuhl, or to stay neutral in the 29th district race, would be a big blow to Kuhl’s Republican primary opponent, Monroe County Legislator Mark Assini. Although Assini is a favorite of “movement” conservatives, he has lagged behind Kuhl in fundraising and establishment support.

A Club for Growth announcement favorable to Kuhl would also offset any momentum Assini may have gained from his endorsement this week by the New York Conservative Party.

Assini is now guaranteed a line on the November ballot, regardless of who wins the Republican primary. Kuhl, who has been backed by the Conservative Party in most of his state legislative races dating back to 1980, had collected petition signatures for a September Conservative primary, but was rebuffed by state party leaders.

“Clearly, Assini is more conservative than Kuhl,” said Michael Long, the state Conservative Party chairman.

He added that the party was disappointed by Kuhl’s voting record, especially over the past two to three years. Kuhl supported a temporary state sales-tax increase and voted in favor of banning tobacco in bars and restaurants, Long said.

“One thing we don’t need in Congress is someone who spends a lot of money … and raises taxes,” Long said. He acknowledged that Conservative Party leaders and voters in the Southern Tier have supported Kuhl in the past and some continue to do so personally.

“It’s unfortunate that the Conservative Party of New York turned their backs on the voters of Western New York and the Southern Tier who had carried their petitions,” said Ira Treuhaft, Kuhl’s spokesman.

Assini said Wednesday he plans to keep his campaign active in the fall even if he loses the Republican primary. That could provide some hope to political operative Samara Barend, the likely Democratic nominee. Republicans have a 45 percent to 29 percent registration advantage in the district, and the Democrat would likely benefit from a vote split among two Republicans.

“You cannot be a state Senator and raise taxes and expect the support of the Conservative Party,” Assini said, adding that Conservative leaders assured him that they care more about candidates adhering to the party’s principles than about party labels.

Treuhaft and national GOP leaders said they did not worry about Assini siphoning conservative votes from Kuhl in the general election.

“We expect to win the November election,” Treuhaft said.

Because the 29th remains the Republicans’ to lose, a Club for Growth endorsement could prove pivotal in the primary, however.

Referring to the Club for Growth, one Republican strategist said, “At this point, I think they’re the only ones who can have an impact there, especially if they put a lot of money in the race” on Assini’s behalf.

Kuhl has been endorsed by the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership and by a raft of elected officials, including Houghton.

Shortly after Houghton retired in April, Club for Growth leaders had harsh words for Kuhl, pointing to his support for a temporary tax increase passed by the Legislature last year. The club strongly suggested that it would endorse one of his primary opponents — back when there were half a dozen candidates in the GOP field.

But the Republican chairman in Monroe County — the largest jurisdiction in the eight-county district — insisted that his party unify behind one candidate from Monroe, to set up a one-on-one primary with Kuhl, who hails from the Southern Tier portion of the district.

The Monroe County Republican Committee rejected three better-known — and better-funded — candidates in favor of Assini, who had been planning to challenge Houghton in the GOP primary and who had been working the grass roots for more than a year.

In an interview, Monroe GOP Chairman Stephen Minarik III insisted that despite forcing his committee to get behind one candidate, Assini “is not my guy.” He had kind words for both Kuhl and Assini and would not predict the outcome of the primary.

“Both of these candidates are doing what they need to do,” Minarik said.

Meanwhile, Democrats in New York and Washington, D.C., tout Barend as a sleeper candidate who might pull an upset. The 26-year-old political operative and community activist, who has worked with Houghton on economic-development issues in the past, has raised $170,000 for the campaign so far.

She finished June with $136,000 in the bank — considerably more than Kuhl’s $84,000 and Assini’s $53,000. Assini has loaned his campaign about $48,000 so far.

“This fundraising blockbuster represents an outcry from a public hungry for change, vision and genuine leadership in Congress,” Barend said.