Why you should care
GOP success in upstate New York could signal the return of an endangered breed — the Republican moderate.
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Come Nov. 4, Republicans’ New York nightmare may finally be over.
That’s what the GOP is hoping, anyway, and this time it’s not just hope. For the first time since 2004, Republicans could once again rule in upstate New York — something they couldn’t manage even during the tea party sweep that gave Republicans the House of Representatives in 2010. Republicans could also potentially take the New York Senate, thanks in large part to their strength upstate. Now, it could well be a one-election blip, especially if a popular Democratic presidential nominee like Hillary Clinton lands on the ballot in 2016. But it could also signal a return to form for the region, which has been known for turning out a vanishing breed: GOP moderates.
Of course, upstate New York has always had an identity distinct from — even defined in opposition to — New York City. The largely pastoral region stretches from Niagara Falls and the shores of Lake Erie to the green peaks of the Adirondack Mountains and down the Hudson River Valley. On issues such as gun rights, taxes and government spending, upstate voters swing rightward — “always more Republican than the rest of the state,” observes Bruce Altschuler, professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York at Oswego, via email. And moderate Republicans have historically done well there. As late as 2004, Republicans won seven of the 11 upstate congressional seats (that number is now 10 because of redistricting).
Here’s the thing about hitting rock bottom: There’s no place to go but up.
But five years later, they were down to one. That’s when businessman Bill Owens, a Democrat, won a special election for Republican Rep. John McHugh’s House seat. (He was snapped up to be secretary of the Army.) What happened? Bush backlash in 2006, for starters — and then, in 2008, a guy named Barack Obama.
From there, Republicans compounded their problems. Three upstate House seats became vacant between 2009 and 2011, thanks to appointments in the new Obama administration, including McHugh’s, and a resignation — married Republican Chris Lee, who turned up in shirtless photos he’d been sending to Craigslist singles. The GOP was favored to win all three special elections. But thanks to lackluster campaigning, underwhelming candidates and internal party squabbles, Democrats snared victories in each of them. Call it Republicans’ New York nadir.
At this point in time, it looks like a Republican ascendancy.
But here’s the thing about hitting rock bottom: There’s no place to go but up. And little by little, Empire State Republicans have been getting their act together, building the foundations for what could be the ultimate redemption this fall. Of the seven districts in upstate New York that were competitive in the past two election cycles, Republicans have comfortable leads in four, hold a small edge in one and are within striking distance of ousting two Democratic incumbents in the others. “There’s a chance that they could run that table,” says Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, which conducts political polls in New York. And though Levy cautions that much may have changed since the last Siena polls from upstate, conducted in September, “at this point in time, it looks like a Republican ascendancy.”
The two parties’ behavior suggests as much: The Republicans are getting more aggressive while Democrats are just trying to shore up their incumbents. In two districts, the 21st and 23rd, Dems have simply stopped buying ads on behalf of their candidates — giving up, essentially. They’re instead buying airtime to defend freshman Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in the 18th District. Republicans, meanwhile, are sending the big guns upstate to campaign for their candidates, including Elise Stefanik, a 30-year-old former Bush staffer, and John Katko, who suddenly looks like a real threat to incumbent Democrat Dan Maffei.
State and national trends are working in Republicans’ favor. According to Altschuler, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has grown increasingly unpopular, in part because of his support for the SAFE Act, a 2013 gun control bill that bans the sale of high-capacity magazines and created a registry for assault weapons. It was passed in response to the Sandy Hook school massacre. And this time around, Obama is a drag, not a boost, for Dems — despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-to-1 In the state. “If you took New York City out of the equation, then [Obama’s] numbers are negative,” notes Levy.
New York Republicans have also gotten their own house in order. This election season they’re more united — and they seem to have learned their lesson about nominating candidates who are too conservative for their district. In 2010, the GOP backed some people who were “a little too tea party-esque,” for the region, says Levy. A few won only to be dumped two years later, with the presidential race attracting higher Democratic turnout.
Those with staying power are more like Rep. Chris Gibson, the former army colonel and Cornell grad who represents a largely rural district north of Poughkeepsie. He’s crossed the aisle to work with Democrats on policies dealing with veterans affairs and agriculture. In 2013, the National Journal labeled him “the most liberal House Republican.” Or like McHugh, the Republican representative turned Obama Army secretary.
Which is why New York’s Republican resurgence, nascent and precarious as it is, may be a boon for others: those who lament the loss of the middle in American politics. The moderates? They’re all upstate.