Less than three months from Election Day, it appears that Donald Trump’s collapsing campaign has forfeited the Republican Party’s chances of taking back the White House and jeopardized the GOP’s hold of the Senate. But few predict that his deep unpopularity will threaten the overwhelming Republican majority in the House.
There are a number of reasons why Democrats aren’t likely to win control of the lower chamber, according to Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report: Fewer than 10 percent of seats are considered competitive; Democrats were as surprised as anyone that Trump took the GOP nomination, and they didn’t recruit and prepare as well as they could have; and Republicans may split their tickets more than usual, opting not to vote for Trump but sticking with their local GOP lawmaker or candidate.
Consider the five, contiguous congressional districts across upstate New York—the 19th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th—that incumbent Republicans have held for no longer than three terms. The districts were all redrawn in 2012 by a federal court.
The region—broadly defined here—stretches from western New York, through Utica, Syracuse, the Catskills, and out east to the North Country. It’s overwhelmingly white, and with the exception of the district around Syracuse, mostly rural. Its politics have been long dominated by so-called Rockefeller Republicans, and its leanings are moderate, less defined by the country’s ideological cultural battles as pocketbook issues and the region’s economic decline. Political mapmakers color the five districts light red or purple.
“When you compare this region politically to where it was 20 and 30 years ago, the reason they tend to be contested elections is you have a dramatic shift in the registration basis of gravity,” said Bruce Gyory, a New York Democratic political consultant. “These used to be bedrock Republican areas that are now narrowly Democratic or dead even—and with therefore of huge percentage of … independent voters.”
Some Republicans in the region blame the loss of manufacturing jobs and ensuing economic uncertainty for the weakening GOP hold on the districts, while some Democrats now see upstate’s increasing economic reliance on colleges and universities as a strength.
But the most obvious factor determining recent House races is the natural turnout model that benefits Democrats in presidential years and Republicans in midterm cycles. An adviser to Democratic former Rep. Dan Maffei, who represented Syracuse, told Wasserman in 2014 that the campaign expected 40,000 more voters to show up that year.
Democrats are hoping to get a boost from antipathy to Trump, particularly in districts now held by Republican Reps. Elise Stefanik and Tom Reed, both of whom are favored and raising far more money than their opponents. The other three districts are considered toss-ups by The Cook Political Report, even though a recent poll by Siena College showed Hillary Clinton up by 8 points in the region.
“Overall, the question of where this region is going, what it will take to revitalize it, what we can do about young people leaving, what we can do about creating a better economic climate and more jobs, just keeps resonating,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “And so I think that’s what you saw tapped into with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and their messages. How does that play out in a general election, though?”
James Eagan, a former top official for the New York State Democratic Committee, told National Journal, “It all depends on what words come out of Donald Trump’s mouth.”
The districts representing the west and northeast of the state are more competitive during presidential years—Reed took over from a resigning Democrat in 2010, and Stefanik did the same in 2014. Obama won both of their districts in 2008 and lost Reed’s district by only a few thousand votes in 2012.
Of the three toss-up districts, two are seats left open by retiring Republicans, the 19th and 22nd.
In the northern Hudson Valley, Republican John Faso, a former state lawmaker, faces progressive firebrand Zephyr Teachout, who moved to the district 10 months ago from New York City. Faso accuses Teachout of being a carpetbagger.
In central New York, GOP state Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney has to deal with opposition from establishment-minded Republicans, who believe she is too conservative. In her race against Democratic county legislator Kim Myers, Tenney also faces a threat from third-party businessman Martin Babinec.
Retiring GOP Rep. Richard Hanna, who beat Tenney in a 2014 primary, said in July that he would not support her in the general election, according to WRVO, the local NPR affiliate.
Finally, the seat representing Syracuse is the most highly educated and diverse of the five districts, and a frequent flipper depending on whether it’s a presidential year. In June, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released ads tying Trump to Republicans in House races across the country, including in this district.
But Republicans are confident that Rep. John Katko, with his fundraising advantage and early record of passing legislation, will still find a way to beat Colleen Deacon, a former top aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, despite Katko’s party-line votes to defund Planned Parenthood and his public concerns with Trump.
“If I had to put money on it, I would think that John Katko would win a close election there,” said Reeher of Syracuse University. “I think he’s done all the right things for this district. And it goes back to the question of whether voters will care. If you don’t have the environment that we have right now and he runs in a ‘normal’ election year, he’s done the things that he needs to do to be reelected.”
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