DCCC Head's Experience With Empire State Specials Informed NY-26 Strategy
During the past three years, winnable races in GOP-friendly districts in N.Y. have slipped out of Republicans' grasp, each one fueling next-day hand-wringing that mismanagement and failure to notice candidate flaws snowballed into a golden opportunity for Democrats.
Last week's Democratic victory in New York's 26th District continued the party's special election winning streak in the state. And overseeing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the contest was the party's point man on the two previous Empire State special elections, Long Island Congressman Steve Israel.
Israel served as DCCC recruitment chair during two bright spots for Democrats that preceded a bleak midterm election cycle for the party -- a March 2009 special election in New York's 20th District after Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate, and a November 2009 special election in New York's 23rd District after GOP Rep. John McHugh was appointed Secretary of the Army.
Both were swing districts, and in the 20th especially, Republicans saw a shot to flip a competitive seat, without the popular Gillibrand not running. The GOP nominated Assemblyman James Tedisco, while Democrats chose venture capitalist Scott Murphy. Tedisco was criticized for not taking a position on the stimulus (he finally said he opposed it), and Murphy ended up winning by a slim 726 votes.
Meanwhile, McHugh's district quickly devolved into a complicated three-way affair after Republicans chose moderate Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava as their standard-bearer. When the Conservative Party instead put Doug Hoffman on their line, a deep fissure gave Democrat Bill Owens an opening. When Scozzafava withdrew from the race the weekend before Election Day, it was Israel who helped persuade her to endorse Owens over Hoffman.
In last week's battle, Israel took heat for not sending money sooner to help Democrat Kathy Hochul's campaign against two self-funding candidates. With polls showing the race tightening, Democrats began to privately wonder if the DCCC would ever pull the trigger, especially after Medicare became an increasingly resonant issue in the race.
Buffalo News columnist Douglas Turner charged that Israel was "hiding under his desk." But Israel says they won't be asking that now, and it was his committee's tactical moves -- informed by his experience -- that enabled them to force GOP groups to make the first move to help a candidate who was already spending $2.7 million of her own money.
"I think it's important [that] you really have to have a feel for the terrain, because the terrain is so dramatically different," Israel told Hotline On Call in an interview last week. "So on recruiting, message, and particularly the ground game, everything is local."
While the DCCC had been providing advice and helped Hochul with some fundraising, it was not until two weeks out that their independent expenditure arm was finally activated to buy television time to hit her two opponents - and that was after the conservative group American Crossroads reserved over $650,000 of airtime.
"The race had to ripen," Israel explained. "If we had come in too early, we would have opened the door and ushered in the Republicans stealth groups. If we had gotten in too late, it might have been too late. We made a decision, very early on, that we, having a feel for the streets, we would wait for conditions to ripen and go in on our time frame, not anybody else's," he said.
Another part of the equation was having the right candidate. While Hochul won praise for her ability to connect with voters on the campaign trail and had cut her teeth in local government, several people remarked that Republican nominee Jane Corwin appeared aloof when campaigning, and her personal wealth certainly didn't help her connect with blue collar and agriculture workers in the area.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who was DCCC chairmen during both of the previous two New York special elections, said Israel's work then was critical to Democrats' narrow wins, and could see how Israel built off that knowledge for another upset.
"In New York 23 he played a critical role in meeting with the players on the ground and helping get support behind [Owens], and secondly trying to navigate among the different groups up there," Van Hollen said in an interview. "When Scozzafava dropped out, [Israel] was active in trying to make sure that we would receive her endorsement."
In the Murphy/Tedisco contest, Van Hollen said Israel "played a very important role especially on the fundraising side, getting the New York community to focus on that race."
Republicans say this victory may have lulled Democrats into a false sense of hopefulness so soon after their drubbing last fall.
"The worst mistake Democrats made last cycle was to get overconfident in their special election victories. It's obvious that they're repeating that again," said one GOP campaign operative. "Republicans have become experts at losing specials, but they've always learned good lessons from them to apply in the general. This loss is a much-needed slap back to reality that hopefully teaches the House GOP how to get their act together."