New York state is serving as a key litmus test for the House this year, as Republicans try to take back a handful of the seats they lost in the past two election cycles to Democrats riding a wave of anti-war sentiment and Bush administration fatigue.
The Empire State — or at least the portions of the state that look more like the rest of the country than the left-leaning New York City area — has seen its congressional representation shift from majority- to almost entirely Democratic in recent years.
A little more than a decade ago, there were 13 Republican-held seats; of the 29 in the state, the GOP now holds just two, thanks to a wave of scandal, Republican infighting, registration shifts and the general mood.
Yet of the six seats that shifted from GOP to Democratic hands since 2006, at least three could easily go Republican in November. Two others are also considered competitive, thanks to their enrollment and history of voting Republican in presidential races.
“It’s very significant, and Republicans probably need to win four seats in New York to take back the House,” said David Wasserman, a House analyst for The Cook Political Report, which monitors races nationally.
According to interviews with Republican and Democratic pollsters, strategists and insiders, here are the House races to watch in order of competitiveness:
29th District (Open seat, last held by Democratic Rep. Eric Massa)
No Democrat will admit it, but this seat is close to forfeit after Massa’s abrupt resignation. The freshman Democrat recently stepped down in the wake of revelations he was being investigated by a House ethics panel over allegations of unwanted advances to male staffers.
After months of delay and a lawsuit, Democratic Gov. David Paterson set the special election for the same day as the November general election — an act that would have helped Democrats had they been able to find a strong candidate. They settled on Afghanistan combat veteran Matthew Zeller, who Democrats privately say is a long shot in a GOP-leaning seat.
24th District (Democratic Rep. Michael Arcuri, elected 2006)
Arcuri, a 14-year prosecutor in the Oneida County District Attorney’s office, had success in the open- seat race against former state Sen. Ray Meier as a fresh face in 2006, while the Republican was hit over his own legislative record.
But he barely squeaked by in a surprisingly close 2008 reelection bid against Richard Hanna, who is running hard again this time. And now, Arcuri has a legislative record of his own — having voted for the bank bailout and the stimulus package. He’s also been abandoned by labor over his vote against the health care reform effort — a significant liability in a district where Republicans slightly outweigh Democrats in registration.
The GOP has been gleefully hitting him with “flip-flopping” charges after he backed the House version of health care reform but not the ultimate product.
“Arcuri radiates nervousness,” said one New York Democratic strategist who’s worked on the local races.
19th District (Democratic Rep. John Hall, elected 2006)
There are three words that everyone uses when they talk about Hall’s difficulties in his second reelection effort: money, money and money.
“He’s not really raising well,” said one Democratic strategist involved in the race.
Hall was a sleeper candidate in 2006 when he upset incumbent GOP Rep. Sue Kelly. A former singer, his liberal voting record has long been considered to the left of his Westchester County-area district.
He’s facing ophthalmologist Nan Hayworth, who’s self-funding to a degree and is also seen as a fresh face — and Republicans are planning to tether Hall to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by saying he has voted with the Democratic leadership 98 percent of the time. Hall also made promises of new jobs that the GOP will argue haven’t materialized.
Hayworth, however, is viewed by Democrats as too extreme for a district that has only a slight Republican registration edge — and it’s not clear how her embrace of tea party activism will play in a district dominated by bedroom communities.
20th District (Democratic Rep. Scott Murphy, elected 2009)
The Albany-metro-area district had been represented by influential and gregarious Republican Rep. John Sweeney for years, but a youthful former Housing and Urban Development official named Kirsten Gillibrand with a well-known lobbyist father, deep ties to Albany politics and a thick Rolodex of donor contacts took him down in 2006.
Gillibrand won reelection easily but was picked just a few months later to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Republicans then engaged in what has become standard fare for them in New York in recent years: a circular firing squad.
Democrats initially searched for a female candidate to follow in Gillibrand’s footsteps but settled on Murphy, a partial self-funder who turned out to be a solid candidate.
Now, Murphy is in the hot seat after what the GOP will paint as reverse flip-flopping — voting no, then yes, on health care reform. He also has a financier background, which opponents may try to make hay of — especially after he fought to change the derivatives language in the financial regulatory reform bill.
He’s facing veteran Chris Gibson, a neophyte who raised a healthy $487,000 in the past quarter.
However, Murphy is running on both the Working Families Party and the Independence Party lines, and few strategists agree on how much trouble he’s in.
“This is kind of a race between two guys who are relatively undefined,” Wasserman said.
23rd District (Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, elected 2009)
Owens captured the upstate seat in a 2009 special election that nevertheless signaled the emergence of tea party activism as a political force this cycle.
No Democrat had held the moderate-minded seat in roughly a century before Owens took advantage of the GOP fracture over the nomination of liberal GOP Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava.
This year, the Republicans may be entering the same battle. Matt Doheny is running against last year’s tea party favorite, Doug Hoffman, who nearly beat out Owens and helped spark the renewed strength of the Conservative Party in New York state.
Doheny has gotten attention as one of the cash leaders of this cycle and is also on the Independence Party line. But Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long is sticking with Hoffman, setting up another potential three-way race.
“Republicans are sniping, and Owens comes across as a nice guy,” said Wasserman.
1st District (Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop, elected 2002)
Bishop has basically had a free ride since his own upstart victory in 2002 in a key swing district that President George W. Bush won narrowly in 2004.
And the axiom that it’s better to be lucky than good is at its peak in this race, which was once a prime GOP pickup target until the New York GOP indulged in its familiar fratricidal tendencies.
Businessman and self-funder Randy Altschuler seemed to be on cruise control in the Eastern Long Island-based seat, despite facing some low-funded primary challengers, and was expected to get the Conservative Party line — crucial for a Republican in the district.
But along came Christopher Nixon Cox, grandson of the late president and son of state GOP Chairman Ed Cox, as a late add to the lineup in January.
The race was thrown into chaos — and it’s remained there ever since.
13th District (Democratic Rep. Mike McMahon, elected 2008)
Yet another example of the GOP circular firing squad — scandal-scarred Vito Fossella was in, then out, then in, then out of the race this year.
And after hijacking the process, he left a splintered Republican Party to choose between former FBI agent Michael Grimm and Bayside fuel oil heir Michael Allegretti.
McMahon seemed poised to get a challenge from the left after his vote on health care reform, but, thanks to local Staten Island politics, organized labor never managed to mount one.
He also has the strong support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While this is a district that supported Sen. John McCain in 2008’s presidential election, the Republicans have been incapable of finding their way back.
25th District (Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei, elected 2008)
Democrats privately say they’re not overly concerned about Maffei, a freshman sitting in a competitive Syracuse-based seat who is facing first-time challenger Ann Marie Buerkle.
Buerkle made national waves recently when Sarah Palin endorsed her, but she has virtually no money raised — or on hand — and it’s not clear that the “Mama Grizzly” activism that Palin brings will resonate in a district that has some core Democratic voting regions.
While Palin could help Buerkle raise money, she might also galvanize the Democratic base in the process.