Why the GOP Figures to Hold the House

Five contiguous districts in upstate New York provide a microcosm of what Democrats are up against.

Rep. Tom Reed
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Aug. 17, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

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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