Will the Rangel Factor Dog N.Y. Democrats?

Posted September 20, 2010 at 6:45pm

Correction Appended

From Syracuse to Staten Island, Republicans think the “Rangel factor” could help push New York’s many swing districts in their favor this fall.

Rep. Charlie Rangel’s primary victory last week ensures the New York Democrat’s place in the news — and potentially on voters’ minds — for the six weeks leading up to the general election. And Republicans said it will contribute to an enthusiasm gap for Democrats across New York, where the GOP hopes to flip as many as eight seats this fall ­— 20 percent of those needed to assume a majority.

Republican strategists will “absolutely” ensure Rangel is a factor this fall, whether his ethics trial plays out before the election or not, according to a GOP campaign aide.

“It’s a resource for Republicans. It’s a drag on the generic ballot for Democrats,” the aide said. “There are so many opportunities in New York. The Rangel factor could be what gets us an extra seat or two, or gets us those extra few hundred thousand votes that puts us over the top.”

Democratic incumbents across the Empire State have been and will continue to be forced to address the Rangel issue. Their staffers publicly dismiss its effect on their contests but cringe when Rangel’s name comes up.

“Rangel’s place on the ballot will serve as a constant reminder that there is this problem of corruption on the Democratic side,” said Alex Carey, spokesman for the New York Republican Party. “It’s a shame that New Yorkers still might have to have him as their Representative, but certainly, it helps us with our messaging having him around.”

Every statement issued by the state GOP references a Hall of Shame on the party’s website, which prominently displays Rangel’s ethics charges in an effort to expose “New York’s Corrupt and Inept Democratic Leadership.” The Congressman is featured alongside former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal and former Rep. Eric Massa’s sexual harassment allegations, among others.

Perhaps nowhere is the Rangel factor more at play than New York’s 25th district, the Syracuse region where Rep. Dan Maffei (D) refuses to return campaign contributions exceeding $80,000 from Rangel, despite repeated calls to do so from his opponent and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Facing similar pressure, other Democrats across the Northeast have returned or donated to charity Rangel donations over the summer.

Maffei is a former Rangel staffer, having served as the communications director for the then-ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee.

“He’s been steadfast in not running away from that,” Maffei spokeswoman Abigail Gardner said of the connection, noting that it extended beyond a professional relationship. “He continues to consider Mr. Rangel a friend.”

Gardner continued: But “the money from Mr. Rangel is from years ago. It was raised and spent in previous cycles. It’s just not relevant to the current money in his campaign.”

Despite a major cash advantage, Maffei led Republican Ann Marie Buerkle by just 3 points in a late July poll released by the American Action Forum.

But Maffei is not the only Democratic incumbent with ties to Rangel who is in trouble this cycle.

Rep. John Hall trailed Republican opponent Nan Hayworth 42 percent to 44 percent in last week’s survey of likely 19th district voters conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling Inc.

Hall returned more than $20,000 in Rangel donations over the summer.

Public Policy Polling Director Tom Jensen said Hall’s greatest problem is not Rangel but the drag from President Barack Obama, whose popularity is low among likely voters in the district.

“There are a ton of vulnerable incumbents in New York,” he said. “I just think Charlie Rangel ranks very low on their list of problems.”

But Republicans are embracing anything that might contribute to the enthusiasm gap in highly competitive swing districts.

Those also include New York’s 24th district, where Rep. Michael Arcuri was among the first Democrats to urge Rangel to quit once the 13 ethics charges were announced. Arcuri had been the beneficiary of $23,000 in Rangel campaign contributions, which he donated to charity in the spring.

Rep. Michael McMahon, a freshman Democrat in the Republican-leaning, Staten Island-based 13th district, also suffered through negative press coverage this cycle because of his connection to Rangel.

He and Maffei were among those targeted by a NRCC robocall last month: “So far … fellow Democrats have returned almost $640,000 in dirty campaign money from Rangel,” the NRCC call said. “Call him today … and tell him it’s time to stop the corruption and return campaign cash from Charlie Rangel.”

McMahon and Hall also backed out of plans to attend Rangel’s birthday bash.

Despite the complications across the state, Rangel’s re-election is all but guaranteed in his heavily Democratic Harlem-based district.

“It borders on the impossible for a Republican to win that seat,” the aide said.

And Rangel’s general election opponent, Harlem-based pastor and former NFL player Michel Faulkner, is not attacking Rangel for his ethics charges.

“He did it. But there are others that did worse,” Faulkner said last week in an interview with Roll Call. “They threw him under the bus. They threw [Rep.] Maxine Waters [Calif.] under the bus. The Democratic Party is showing its true colors. I think the Democratic Party is racist. I’ll say it.”

The Democratic leadership declined to respond to the charge.

Correction: Sept. 21, 2010

The article incorrectly reported that Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), who represents part of Westchester County, donated $1,000 to Rep. Charlie Rangel’s campaign. He made no such donation.