Banking on an Upset

Wealthy Challenger Insists Bishop Is Beatable

Posted September 28, 2004 at 6:46pm

Republican Bill Manger has an uphill battle ahead of him in New York’s volatile 1st district.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) has turned his challenger’s name recognition woes into a big lead in the polls, according to knowledgeable Democratic sources. The prohibitive cost of advertising in the Long Island district could mean Bishop’s lead is almost impregnable as the election draws near.

Manger’s campaign seems either unaware of, or unworried by, his name-recognition troubles. The candidate feels he’s making a good connection with the voters he has talked to. Inspired by Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) initial grassroots campaign for the Senate, Manger has visited almost 3,000 houses in the district.

“I even went to Fisher’s Island,” Manger said. “They had never had a candidate go out there before …. They were pretty excited by the attention.”

Even if Manger gets all of the 300 or so votes on the tiny island that’s closer to Connecticut than Long Island, that is not a formula for victory. Although the district boasts a 3-to-2 advantage for the GOP in voter enrollment, a large segment of independents usually determine the outcome.

And in the end, money, not door-knocking prowess, should be paramount. Through Aug. 25, Bishop had $813,000 in the bank and Manger had $483,000.

But Manger, a personally wealthy former investment banker and federal transportation official, has begun to pour his own money into the campaign. He has loaned the campaign $200,000, and reserved the right to give more if he feels it is necessary. With the money he has on hand, Manger is spending $75,000 a week on cable ads and $25,000 a week on radio spots in an effort to raise his profile.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has also earmarked $60,000 for the race for a modest cable buy.

The Manger campaign has been airing a series of cable spots accusing Bishop of driving Southampton College, where he served as provost, into bankruptcy because of his reckless spending. While the Bishop campaign portrays the ad as a “smear,” Manger spokesman Lance Cospey replies that the ads address issues that are important to the district.

“We’re talking about issues,” he said. “[Bishop] is trying to play a game of ‘scare the voters.’ We’re talking about tax votes and his tenure of spending at Southampton. It’s not a negative spot.”

But Manger may need to be careful in his attempts to become known to the voters, mindful of the fate that befell the man Bishop replaced in the 1st district, Felix Grucci. In his 2002 re-election campaign Grucci ran a series of advertisements accusing Bishop of being insensitive to rape victims on the Southampton College campus. Those ads turned off many voters.

“His campaign overreached on an issue, about some young girl being raped. They tried to portray Bishop as being insensitive to this crime, and it lacked credibility” one Republican familiar with the campaign explained.

Additionally, Grucci made “tons of little mistakes … and the voters said ‘this isn’t a guy I want around,’” the Republican said. Bishop, he thinks, simply “wasn’t Grucci.”

Bishop is now the incumbent with the name recognition, which is no small advantage in a district where a week of advertising on the broadcast networks costs upwards of a million dollars.

The incumbent is not worried by the difference in party registration, either.

“To say that this district has a Republican advantage is based on local factors” that are no longer relevant, said a Democratic campaign official who did not want to be named. “It’s similar to Southern Democrats; party loyalty is based on the past more so than the present.” The party a person is registered with means little when it comes to how they will actually vote, the Democrat said.

Bishop’s allies argue that Manger’s decision to pour money into the race and start running negative ads are signs that his campaign is in trouble.

Manger has called in national figures who are very popular with the independent-minded voters in an effort to lift his campaign.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) has already done a radio spot for the campaign and visited the district “a couple of times … he’s a strong supporter,” according to Cospey.

McCain has also lent his support to the campaign, Cospey says, and will record an advertisement for the challenger when his schedule permits.

Despite the help Manger is getting from independent-minded Republicans like Giuliani and McCain, Democrats will argue that Manger will vote in lockstep with the conservative House leadership.

Manger himself remains optimistic. He feels that momentum is with him, pointing to polling that shows President Bush has gone from being down by 8 points to being up by 5 points in the district.

His current advertising campaign and door-to-door work will raise his profile in the district and help get his message out, which he feels is in sync with the 1st district’s voters.

But, he concedes, “it’s a tough district to become famous [in] real fast.”