Top Tea Party Target: New York

Outside conservative groups are working to oust moderate Republican congressman Richard Hanna.

Speaker John Boehner administers the House oath to Rep. Richard Hanna on Jan. 6 in the Rayburn Room on Capitol Hill.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Nov. 19, 2015, 8 p.m.

It’s not of­ten that a single House seat rep­res­ents a ma­jor op­por­tun­ity for the tea party and Demo­crats alike, but that’s the case in Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Richard Hanna’s mod­er­ate up­state New York dis­trict, where hard-line con­ser­vat­ives are fed up with Hanna’s lack of party loy­alty and Demo­crats are pre­pared to swoop in after a con­ten­tious primary.

Hanna, a third-term con­gress­man, is a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire con­struc­tion ex­ec­ut­ive who is one of the most mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans in the House.  That puts him in strong po­s­i­tion to hold a per­en­ni­al swing dis­trict that split its vote evenly between Pres­id­ent Obama and Mitt Rom­ney in 2012.  But it’s put­ting him at jeop­ardy in a primary, with con­ser­vat­ives up­set over his vot­ing re­cord and de­fense of Hil­lary Clin­ton.

After GOP state As­semb­ly­wo­man Claudia Ten­ney, a tea-party fa­vor­ite who nar­rowly lost to Hanna in a 2014 primary, an­nounced she will run again in 2016, Demo­crat­ic state As­sembly­man An­thony Brind­isi told Na­tion­al Journ­al he is con­sid­er­ing en­ter­ing the race. Demo­crats haven’t had suc­cess run­ning against Hanna in re­cent cycles, but Brind­isi abides by the ad­age that the en­emy of his en­emy is his friend. His in­terest isn’t solely based on the dis­trict’s com­pet­it­ive par­tis­an di­vide, he said: It’s be­cause if Ten­ney up­set the con­gress­man in the primary, it would give the Demo­crats a strong chance to win.

“If you look at New York’s 22nd Dis­trict, it is a mod­er­ate dis­trict by nature,” Brind­isi said. “The entry of As­semb­ly­wo­man Ten­ney adds some more in­terest to the dis­trict. She’s a very di­vis­ive fig­ure, and I think Wash­ing­ton has enough people who are un­will­ing to work to­geth­er. The last thing we should do is send an­oth­er per­son like that.”

But Brind­isi ad­mit­ted that he would have a tough time de­feat­ing Hanna, even though the dis­trict is one of the most com­pet­it­ive in the coun­try. Brind­isi said the in­cum­bent “has been suc­cess­ful so far in that dis­trict. He has more of a mod­er­ate vot­ing re­cord and rep­res­ents the views of the dis­trict.”

Hanna and Ten­ney ran one of the most hard-fought House primary races in the coun­try last cycle, but Demo­crats couldn’t cap­it­al­ize, fail­ing to even get a can­did­ate on the bal­lot. Ten­ney only lost by a 7-point mar­gin, even though Hanna out­spent her by about a 5-to-1 mar­gin—not in­clud­ing a wave of out­side money from groups that back mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans.

Ten­ney stands to build on her 2014 per­form­ance if any ma­jor con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups de­cide to back her this time, know­ing that she can run a cred­ible cam­paign. The Club for Growth did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment, but spokes­man Doug Sach­tleben said be­fore Ten­ney’s an­nounce­ment that the group is watch­ing the race.

Hanna won’t face Ten­ney without as­sist­ance in 2016: The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee is back­ing him, and the Re­pub­lic­an Main Street Part­ner­ship and Amer­ic­an Unity PAC both have told Na­tion­al Journ­al his race is a top pri­or­ity. But it’s un­likely he’ll have the same kind of fin­an­cial ad­vant­age he had last year, which is good for Demo­crats, said Philip Klinkner, a pro­fess­or of gov­ern­ment at Hamilton Col­lege.

“At the very least, Hanna spends a lot of money in the primary,” said Klinkner, a Demo­crat.

And Hanna him­self may have gif­ted a line of at­tack for Ten­ney for the up­com­ing elec­tion after ar­guing in a ra­dio in­ter­view last month that the House spe­cial com­mit­tee in­vest­ig­at­ing the Benghazi at­tacks were a par­tis­an witch hunt de­signed to go after Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“There was a big part of this in­vest­ig­a­tion that was de­signed to go after people and an in­di­vidu­al, Hil­lary Clin­ton,” Hanna said.

Ten­ney said her con­ser­vat­ive re­cord poses a threat to Hanna be­cause in a Re­pub­lic­an primary, voters don’t want their rep­res­ent­at­ive to de­fend the Demo­crats’ likely pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee.

“People say, ‘Well, you shoot from the hip.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I do shoot from the hip, but I de­fend Re­pub­lic­an prin­ciples,’” Ten­ney told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view last month, be­fore en­ter­ing the race. “I don’t take shots at Re­pub­lic­an prin­ciples when I shoot from the hip.”

That could help Ten­ney in a Re­pub­lic­an primary, but not ne­ces­sar­ily in the gen­er­al elec­tion. The same goes for her fo­cus on so­cial is­sues: She at­tacked Hanna last cycle for sup­port­ing Planned Par­ent­hood and same-sex mar­riage. Brind­isi said that presents an op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats if Ten­ney wins the Re­pub­lic­an primary.

“The first thing voters are think­ing about are jobs and eco­nomy,” he said. “So­cial is­sues are sec­ond­ary to that.”

If Ten­ney were the nom­in­ee, it would give House Demo­crats a rare op­por­tun­ity: For all the hype around GOP primar­ies, Re­pub­lic­ans were suc­cess­ful last year avoid­ing nom­in­at­ing un­elect­able can­did­ates in battle­ground House races. In New York alone, fresh­man Reps. Lee Zeld­in and Elise Stefanik won com­pet­it­ive primar­ies against can­did­ates at­tack­ing them as in­suf­fi­ciently con­ser­vat­ive.

Brind­isi sug­ges­ted that it’s pos­sible Hanna will re­tire rather than run again—though the con­gress­man has giv­en no in­dic­a­tion he’s look­ing to leave. One oth­er X factor: the In­de­pend­ence Party line, which Hanna won in 2014, and could still nom­in­ate him in 2016 even if he loses the Re­pub­lic­an primary. But in that scen­ario, the GOP vote would likely be split in the gen­er­al elec­tion, giv­ing Brind­isi an easi­er path to vic­tory.

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