That escalated quickly.
The Washington circus has bombarded the once-sleepy special election in upstate New York — attracting top Democratic and Republican brass, outside groups showering the House race with money and even enticing Donald Trump.
With the election less than two weeks away and polls showing a tight race despite the district’s GOP leanings, an ever-expanding cast of characters is parachuting into the Buffalo and Rochester suburbs, saturating the contest with typical D.C. fare like bare-knuckled, high-priced TV ads and visits from headline-grabbing surrogates.
“I think there will be a significant amount of activity,” said Ali Lapp, a former top staffer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and executive director of House Majority PAC, an outside group that supports congressional Democrats. “Clearly, Republicans are very scared about losing a safe seat, and Democrats see an opportunity. When you see that, everyone jumps in.”
Leading the charge is American Crossroads, the conservative group that poured tens of millions of dollars into House and Senate races last year, which has launched a heavy-rotation, $650,000 TV ad campaign slamming Jack Davis, the former Democrat and now tea party candidate who polls show is siphoning GOP support from Republican Jane Corwin.
Both the House Democratic and Republican campaign arms have roared into action, though both were initially reluctant to invest much money in a race that few considered competitive just weeks ago. The DCCC announced Tuesday it was purchasing $250,000 in TV time, and the National Republican Congressional Committee dispatched its independent expenditure team — led by New York-based pollster Jim McLaughlin and ad man Dan Allen — to begin drawing up attacks. The NRCC’s first wave of ads, priced at $265,000, will begin hitting New York airwaves on Monday.
It’s also become a destination for surrogates like New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — both of whom are now slated to campaign with Democrat Kathy Hochul. On Wednesday, Gillibrand fired off a fundraising appeal on behalf of Hochul, who, she wrote, was “surging to a dead heat in the most Republican district in New York.”
Meanwhile, Republican House heavyweights have come to back Corwin, including House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions. The NRCC is now enlisting other big-name Republicans to conduct robocalls on Corwin’s behalf, according to a party official.
“From the Republican leaders coming to the district to the conservative outside groups coming in, it’s all in with both feet,” said former New York Rep. Bill Paxon, a past NRCC chairman who is advising Corwin.
There’s even growing interest from national tea party groups, which are racing to cast aspersions on Davis’s conservative credentials. The tea-party-aligned FreedomWorks PAC has launched a “campaign seeking to educate voters in New York’s 26th Congressional District concerning self-proclaimed ‘tea party candidate’ Jack Davis’s real record as a Big Government liberal.”
Not to be outdone, Carl Paladino, the controversial and outspoken conservative former New York gubernatorial candidate, sent out an email Wednesday calling Davis a fake tea party candidate and declaring: “I’m still mad as hell, but this time it’s because Jack Davis is lying.”
Paladino will headline a Tea Party Express rally for Corwin next week.
But perhaps the ultimate indicator that the race has spiraled into a national cacophony: Trump, fumbling for relevancy now that the birther issue he championed has died down, weighed in this week. Speaking in New Hampshire, Trump blamed Corwin’s slide on her support for the controversial House GOP budget plan and said she was “having a hard time defending that whole situation with Medicare.”
There is one notable holdout: Andrew Cuomo, the state’s newly elected Democratic governor, who enjoys high approval ratings and has avoided the sharply partisan fray. Cuomo has not endorsed Hochul and has not campaigned for her despite being in Buffalo Thursday to deliver a speech.
At stake for the national figures who are involved: bragging rights. Whichever party comes out on top will lay claim to the first competitive electoral battle of the critical 2012 cycle and will tout the win as evidence of momentum.
“The thing about special elections is that they’re the only game in town — so everyone’s watching them,” said Carl Forti, a GOP consultant and political director of American Crossroads, who speculated that each party would spend $2 million on the race.
To some, the district — a rural, heavily middle-class area that stretches from the outer area of Buffalo to the suburbs of Rochester — is the perfect laboratory for taking the public temperature in the still formative election cycle.
“Buffalo isn’t in New York state — it’s in the Midwest, and the voters there are able to move either way. National Republicans and national Democrats will be able to mouth off on the national news shows over whatever the results are,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York City-based Democratic consultant. “There’s a lot riding on this.”
“It’s a circus right now,” Sheinkopf said. “Nobody wants anyone else to have an advantage.”
National groups are also determined to cast the race as a referendum on the national budget. Hochul has run TV ads hammering Corwin for supporting a GOP budget plan that “would essentially end Medicare,” while Corwin has shot back that Hochul has no solutions for addressing the nation’s debt crisis.
“I think the race has become national because it coincided with the Republican budget plan,” said Lapp, whose organization is considering investing in the contest. “The dynamics of that are playing out in this race.”
With the race under the national microscope, said Lapp, it offers the perfect opportunity to gauge how the budget plan is playing politically.
“There’s always something unique about special elections because they take place in a vacuum,” Lapp said.
But in a cycle where control of the lower congressional chamber is at stake, both parties’ sudden involvement can be distilled even further: It’s competitive.
“Both parties think the race is up for grabs,” said former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, a past NRCC chairman who held the seat for a decade. “If it’s this close, it makes people want to get involved.”
“I think we’ll see more groups get in one way or the other,” he said.